Memphis-Raised Chef Bryant Terry Digs Up the Real Roots of Soul Food (It’s Not What You Think)
The cookbook author behind Afro-Vegan and Vegetable Kingdom celebrates the unsung role plants played in many Black Southern households.
Long before farm-to-table became a movement, Bryant Terry was living the lifestyle in his hometown of Memphis. “My family owned farms in rural Mississippi and kept home gardens in Memphis, so I always had the freshest local food that was grown and cooked by people I love,” he says. Naturally, the chef and cookbook author’s version of traditional soul food is deeply rooted in the garden. His five cookbooks celebrate this veggie-centric upbringing in creative ways while also shining a light on the side of soul food that few identify as traditional. “When you consider what’s on the menu at most soul food restaurants—big flavored meats, cooked to death vegetables, sugary desserts, and the like—these are foods traditionally served at holidays and celebrations,” says Terry, now based in Oakland, California, and the chef in residence at San Francisco’s Museum of the African Diaspora. “The everyday meals that most regular Black folks ate were simply prepared and vegetable forward.”
Those staples and more are highlighted in Terry’s latest cookbook, Vegetable Kingdom, which includes some familiar favorites from his own childhood, like his grandfather’s Turnip Green Soup. “I make it just like my Paw Paw did. No need to reinvent.” Here, Terry talks his vegetable-centric—and not uncommon—Southern upbringing and why he ultimately switched to an entirely plant-based diet.
SL: You grew up in Memphis. What are some of your earliest food memories?
My fondest memories are gardening with my paternal grandfather and cooking with my maternal grandmother. My family grew and cooked most of our food for survival and pleasure—and their way of living wasn’t anything special. The reality is, most of their neighbors also had agrarian roots, kept gardens, and had vegetable-centric diets.
SL: What’s your definition of traditional soul food?
When most people imagine soul food, they are referring to the traditional comfort foods of working class and poor black Southerners. But before the industrialization of our food system, working class and poor folks couldn’t afford to have over-the-top meat-centric meals [like these] every day. Most of the time, my grandparents and members of their community cooked straight from their garden steaming, lightly sautéing, or blanching vegetables. Meat was at the margins of the plate or used as a seasoning.
SL: You didn’t grow up vegan. Why did you decide to make the switch?
I grew up an omnivore, but I started moving towards a more compassionate and healthful diet when I was in 10th grade after hearing the song “Beef” by the hip-hop crew Boogie Down Productions. I then learned a lot about the ethical, health, and environmental reasons for maintaining a vegan diet from Rastafarians and other Black elders who used to shop at the health food store in downtown Memphis.
SL: Was it a difficult transition?
I think it’s important to note that my path was non-linear. I didn’t immediately become a strict vegan in high school; I started reducing my meat consumption and moving in the direction of a meat-free diet. When I studied abroad in France in the late ‘90s, it was challenging maintaining a strict vegan diet. I share those things to encourage self-compassion and remind folks that we are humans trying to do the best we can in this life.
SL: Did anything surprise you when you began filtering soul food and African American cuisine through a vegan lens?
When delving deeper into research of many traditional dishes throughout Western and Central African countries, I discovered that a lot of them actually were vegetable-based.
SL: Even vegetable-centric dishes in Southern cooking often have a component that’s less healthy or meat-based (collards cooked with smoked ham hocks, for instance). Was it a challenge to break out of those expectations while still offering the big flavor of Southern food?
I don’t necessarily see things like rendered fat and chunks of meat added to vegetables dishes as unhealthy. Many traditional cuisines around the globe use these components to deepen flavor and add nutrient density. But I do think a lot of people can’t imagine Southern food devoid of any animal products, so I enjoy the challenge of offering meat-free alternatives. Cooking vegan dishes allows everyone to enjoy them, and I would put my recipes up next to any dish with animal products in them.
SL: Name five Southern (or Southern-raised) chefs who inspire you today.
Mashama Bailey, B.J. Dennis, Edouardo Jordan, Rob McDaniel, and Steven Satterfield.