Vegan Soul Food With A Side Of Soulful Music

Mar 6, 2012
Originally published on March 7, 2012 2:24 pm

Imagine this scene: you're in the kitchen, cooking up a big dinner of black-eyed peas, pickled mustard greens, and candied sweet potatoes, listening to the soulful voice of Nina Simone.

It's a feast for your family and for your ears. But you might notice there's something missing from the menu — meat.

Chef and author Bryant Terry says you don't need a big hunk of meat on your plate to complete your meal. In an interview with NPR's Michel Martin, Terry says his goal isn't to convert readers to veganism, but to encourage them to eat more plant-based foods.

"The American diet is too heavily meat-centered," says Terry.

Terry first burst onto the food scene with his cookbook, Vegan Soul Kitchen. Now he's out with a new cookbook, The Inspired Vegan: Seasonal Ingredients, Creative Recipes, Mouthwatering Menus.

He says vegan food isn't for everyone, but it's a tool to help create a healthy diet and prevent chronic pain and illness. He takes this message to communities with high rates of obesity. But too often, he says, African-American and Latino kids respond with one statement: "That's white people's food."

"So many communities just have very little access to healthful sustainable food," says Terry. "They're what people describe as food deserts."

By food deserts, he means neighborhoods that have only what he calls "the worst food sources" — fast food restaurants, corner stores and liquor stores.

"We need to think more creatively about bringing more healthful food sources," says Terry, "supermarkets, community gardens, farmer's markets, and we know that will be one step in addressing this public health crisis."

In The Inspired Vegan, Terry presents a series of menus, each paired with its own soundtrack, based off the music that inspires him to cook. Terry says when he was growing up, music was central to all of his family gatherings. That's why, in his books, he tries to bridge the gap between food, music, art, and culture.

He wants to encourage readers to "get together with friends, leave their Twitters, and actually engage and cook and have fun with people."

For the menu Detroit Harvest, he recommends songs like "Detroit Summer" by Invincible + Waajeed, and "Revolution" by Nina Simone.

Terry says the menu is inspired by a hybrid of African-American and Chinese-American cuisine that he and his wife try to create at home for their daughter. He says, at ten months old, she's already starting to embrace her cultural roots.

Molasses, Miso, and Maple Candied Sweet Potatoes

For the Detroit Harvest menu, Terry presents a fusion of African- and Chinese- American dishes that emphasize seasonal fall vegetables.

Soundtrack: "Revolution" by Nina Simone from Protest Anthology

Book: Conversations in Maine: Exploring our Nation's Future by James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

2 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes or garnet yams, peeled and cut into 1/2–inch rounds

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick

2 tablespoons molasses

1 teaspoon tamari or shoyu

2 tablespoons pure maple syrup

1 heaping tablespoon white or yellow miso

1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon grated lemon zest

6 tablespoons filtered water

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

In a large bowl, toss the sweet potatoes with 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil.

Spread the sweet potatoes on a parchment-lined or well-greased baking sheet in a single layer and roast for 50 minutes, turning over with a fork after 25 minutes.

Remove the sweet potatoes from the oven and lower the heat to 375°F.

Place the cinnamon stick at the bottom of a 2-quart baking dish, and add the sweet potatoes in layers. Set aside.

In a medium-size bowl, whisk together the molasses, tamari, maple syrup, miso, orange juice, lemon juice, lemon zest, water, and the remaining tablespoon of sesame oil. Pour over the sweet potatoes.

Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes, thoroughly basting the sweet potatoes every 10 minutes.

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Now, you might have caught first lady Michelle Obama recently sampling beets on "The Tonight Show" or having a hula-hoop showdown with "Late Night" talk show host Jimmy Fallen. It's all part of her effort to keep interest going in her fight against childhood obesity and to get Americans of all ages to rediscover the joys of a varied diet with a heavy emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables.

But she is not the only one. Perhaps less visible, but no less passionate about healthy, delicious food, is our next guest, Bryant Terry. He first caught the food world's attention with his book "Vegan Soul Kitchen," but now he's back with a new book, "The Inspired Vegan," and he is here to tell us what inspires him.

Bryant Terry, thank you so much for stopping by.

BRYANT TERRY: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just take us back, for people who aren't familiar with your work. You grew up in the South with all that good Southern cooking. Why vegan?

TERRY: You know, I have to say that while my books are vegan, my goal isn't necessarily to convert people to veganism, but I do understand that the American diet is too heavily meat-centered.

So my goal is to encourage people to eat more plant-based foods, and we know that more mainstream medical institutions are saying that vegan diets can be very helpful for helping pain management and obviously preventing chronic illnesses.

And so I understand it as a tool to help kind of address this public health crisis that all Americans are dealing with, but particularly the people that are most impacted - African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.

MARTIN: Since you mentioned ethnicity, let's just kind of go right there. You've been an activist in this area for years. You're also an educator. You do a lot of speaking with kids, and they often will say to you, that is white people's food.

TERRY: I hear that so often and...

MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

TERRY: Well, I think one of the main issues that a lot of people who are living in the most impacted communities is the reality that so many communities just have very little access to healthful, sustainable food. You know, they're what people describe as these food deserts, communities that have a plethora of the worst food sources. Lots of fast food restaurants, corner stores and liquor stores where people can get processed foods, and of course there are very few fresh, healthful foods that are being sold there.

And you know, what adds injury to insult - the foods that are in these corner store liquor stores are the same foods that you'd find in the conventional supermarket. They're between 40 and 49 percent higher at these stores, so we need to think more creatively about bringing more healthful food sources. Supermarkets, community gardens, farmers' markets. And we know that that will be one step in addressing this public health crisis.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with writer, chef and food activist Bryant Terry. We're talking about his new cookbook, "The Inspired Vegan." So there are recipes, but there's also a soundtrack in the book, a suggested playlist. And I wanted to ask about that. Is it - are we supposed to listen while we cook, while we eat? You just wanted us to know that this was your personal soundtrack?

TERRY: You know, a little bit of all of that. I grew up in a very musical family. My aunt is this very well known singer from the '70s, Ann Peebles. She sang the song "I Can't Stand the Rain," and so when we were growing up, music was so central to all the family gatherings, and I feel like this industrial food system has food over here and then art and community and culture and music way over there somewhere, so I'm trying to bridge that gap and bring those things back together with my books and encourage people to get together with friends and leave their Twitters and, you know, actually, like, engage and cook and have fun with people.

MARTIN: Let's play one of the songs on your list. One of the songs you recommend is "Detroit Summer" by Invincible and Waajeed. Here it is.


INVINCIBLE AND WAAJEED: (Singing) Detroit in the summer - it's more than a season. When I moved to the city (unintelligible) reason. Can I clarify all the distortion you seeing? Got to break your mind out of prison while the warden is sleeping. Politicians make a fortune by thieving. The air quality since the Model T could shorten your breathing. Follow me to a city where empty lots turn to garden plots. Got alternatives in place so we can disregard the cops.

MARTIN: And then you present a Detroit Harvest menu, so what's on the Detroit Harvest menu?

TERRY: So the Detroit Harvest menu was inspired by just kind of hybrid cuisine that my wife and I like to think that we're creating in our home, because my wife is Chinese-American. And so we have a daughter now. We're really intentional about making sure that she's embracing all of her cultural food ways, and so, you know...

MARTIN: Wait a minute. She's 10 months old. Does she have teeth yet or...

TERRY: This girl's been eating since she was two months old.


TERRY: So you know, the menu is inspired by the work of two, you know, giants in the kind of social justice activist world, Grace Lee Boggs and her late husband James Boggs. And so the menu - I'll name some of the recipes. Black eyed peas and garlic ginger braised mustard greens with quick pickled mustard greens, sesame seeds and tamari, black forbidden rice, molasses Miso and maple candied sweet potatoes, which is kind of like a twist on the traditional Southern dish, candied sweet potatoes. And then we end the dish with a dessert, rice wine poached Asian pears.

MARTIN: OK. Stop. OK, OK. Look, stop. Alright, you're hurting me now. OK? It was fine as a hypothetical, but then we brought it down to the flavors. OK. So again with the music. What are we supposed to do with this soundtrack? Are we supposed to play it while we cook and - what are we doing?

TERRY: People can look at this menu and be like, wow. That's pretty overwhelming. I can't imagine making that, you know, after working all day. And this is the type of menu that I encourage people to make on the weekends or celebrations and not doing it alone. Do it with your family. Do it with friends. Build community around the table in the kitchen. And so with a dish like this, I would want people to get together, purchase the food collectively, make it together and then eat.

But while they're doing all that, bumping, you know, "Welcome to Detroit" by J. Dilla or, you know, "Statements" by Milt Jackson or The White Stripes. You know, just like really enjoying music as they're, you know, making food.

MARTIN: OK. And you also chose another song to go with that sweet potato dish - Nina Simone, "Revolution." And we'll play that. Here we go.


NINA SIMONE: (Singing) Now we got a revolution 'cause I see the face of things to come. Yeah. Your constitution - well, my friend, it's going to have to bend.

MARTIN: Well, we actually took you up on your challenge and one of our producers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, made the maple candied sweet potatoes. What's your inspiration for a dish like this?

TERRY: You know, I kind of like - inspiration comes from everywhere, but for this particular dish I was thinking about this traditional - because, you know, there's this idea that I think a lot of people talk about African-American cuisine as this static thing. It's just like - well, you know, that stuff is killing us. All those pigs feeding chitlins and, you know, as you said, I think that's certainly an important part of the history. We don't need to abandon that.

But the food is constantly evolving and so for me to take these dishes and give them an Asian twist with the Miso and the tamari, which is a wheat-free soy sauce, and just kind of like, you know, add these different flavor profiles, I think it's just kind of bringing it into the 21st century and helping it constantly evolve.

MARTIN: You want a taste? Sanaz was nice enough to...

TERRY: I would love a taste. Thank you, Sanaz...

MARTIN: Mm, oh, that's good. So what do you say to people who think that the cuisine is static? People who say, look, you know, my family comes to the table. They don't want any surprises. What do you say?

TERRY: Well, I think surprises are a good thing and what I found is just making delicious food and bringing it to the table - you know, I don't talk about - hey, I got some vegan roasted potatoes with parsley pine nut pesto. I just put it on the table and, guaranteed, the one that I made is gone.

So for me, flavor is of primary importance and I really try to present people with delicious food, and when they hear vegan, often they think it's bland and boring and tofu with brown rice, but you know, this is just delicious food that I think most people can get down with.

MARTIN: Bryant Terry's latest cookbook is "The Inspired Vegan" and he was kind enough to join us at our NPR studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for coming.

TERRY: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you want to make your own dish of molasses, Miso and maple candied sweet potatoes, just go to and to put you in the cooking mood, we will go out with another Bryant Terry recommendation, "A Beautiful Romance" by the Milt Jackson Quartet.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A BEAUTIFUL ROMANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.