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Cooking with Bryant Terry: Collard Greens the VSK Way

January 20, 2010

This past Monday, cookbook author and food justice activist Bryant Terry came to Pierson Dining hall to teach us a little something about collard greens. Or, at least, that’s what I thought I’d get out of the cooking demo. As someone who had never gone to a cooking demo before, Terry surprised me. I expected to sit down and watch as a talented chef of his own tastes cut, seasoned, and sauteed various dishes in the span of about twenty to twenty-five minutes. It was going to be like watching a Food Network show live, right? Wrong. And I’m glad that Terry’s presentation was nothing like the quick-fire of syndicated television.

Terry began with a brief introduction to his food philosophy: food as grub. “When I say, ‘Eat!’ you say, ‘Grub!'” “Eat!” “Grub!?” After the first energetic, but rather confused response from the audience, Terry explained that for him the word grub means more than a casual referral to food. He and his co-author, Anna Lappe, defined the term in their book, Grub: Ideas for an  Urban Organic Kitchen(Tarcher, 2006). Grub, he continued, is healthy, sustainable food that supports the community and is available to everyone. Terry and Lappe chose to talk about their food as “grub” in order to bend the elitist connotations that the terms “urban organic kitchen” might evoke in their target audience. They wanted to remind people that their recipes were for everyone and that good, fresh produce should be available to everyone as well. Hence, the colloquial term, grub. Ah! The audience seemed to understand. The second time around, “Eat!” was followed by, “GRUB!”

Which brings me to Terry’s next, and most recent publication, Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine (Da Capo Press 2009). This was the only book of his I had actually looked through, and I found myself wondering who his intended audience was. Did anyone believe that soul food could be vegan? Terry, of course, was aware of the hesitance that most people would have to this concept of “veganizing” Southern cuisine. His response was articulate and well-researched. His approach was based on the history of food, gardens, and small-scale agriculture in his grandparents’ neighborhoods in Memphis, where he grew up. Soul food is more than the stereotypical comfort dishes we think of when someone mentions the South. Soul food really is, and encompasses, dishes that nourish the mind, body, and soul. Southern food should not be looked at in terms of stereotypes, but rather as its own iteration of cuisine–and if we think about it, most cuisines include both objectively healthy dishes and unhealthier ones that we refer to as “comfort food.”  I realized then just how ignorant I had been about the real traditions of Southern cooking. No thanks to Paula Deen, I was convinced that a pat of butter meant half a stick, that all root vegetables were doused in sugar and candied, and above all, that these dishes were eaten on a daily basis. 

And, after his thought-provoking presentation, Terry got to making those collard greens. His recipe? Cut the stems off the collard greens, roll them up, and chiffonade them by cutting the roll into slices. Heat a pot of boiling water and cook them for 8-10 minutes. Put them in cold water for 5-6 minutes to help them retain their greenness. Drain them. Heat the olive oil and garlic up together, to avoid burning the garlic. Add collards, some raisins, salt to taste, and a little bit of orange juice for zing.

Of course, I’m quite sure that Terry wouldn’t consider his recipe to be the most authentic representation of collards, but both he and I believe that his recipes come from an authentic place; the desire to rebuild and reshape the way people view and eat Southern food. As an active food justice advocate, Bryant Terry believes that healthy, fresh produce should be available to everyone and that making it available to low-income areas is the key to showing them that it’s their right to be well-nourished and to remind them that dishes that include vegetables and could be considered vegan are not just “‘white people’s food,'” as his teenaged students in Oakland used to say.

For more information on Terry’s community work and interests, check out Nozlee’s interview with him!

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