Straight-up inspiring. That’s how it was to witness Bryant Terry work the stage last Wednesday for a sold-out crowd at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. Between the food, the spoken-word poets, and Terry’s deeply personal story of food and health, it brought the house down.
We kicked off the event with some food-focused spoken-word poetry, courtesy of two young ladies from Po’Shines Café de la Soul, a soul food non-profit in North Portland. Among their many projects, Po’Shines hosts a Friday night youth poetry slam called “Cornbred,” which grew out of their partnership with Write Around Portland. Their words set the perfect stage for Bryant’s talk, which wove together hip-hop, activism, sustainability and history. “Recipe as autobiography,” Terry calls his approach - his life as told by the food he cooks.
With style and humor, Terry shared his personal history of eating, beginning with his young experiences in his grandparent’s Southern gardens. As a child, he remembers, food was just-picked and as ultra-local as your backyard - it was practically second nature to grow your own food. Still, he admits, it was easy to fall into the habits of fast food and bad eating; in fact, it was easy for him to almost completely forget his old, healthier lifestyle. But, influenced by his youth spent listening to politically-charged hip-hop (a KRS-One song led him to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) and his graduate school stint in New York’s activist networks, Terry explained how he balanced out his diet and, in the process, tried everything from vegetarianism to “breathatarianism.”
It was during that time that he realized that food access and health were being completely overlooked by all of his activist peers. The low-income, chronically under-served, inner-city groups that he worked with were the same populations that didn’t have fresh produce or real food choices. So Terry started working on food initiatives that would demystify healthy eating, by showing how affordable and easy it could be. In turn, this led him to write Vegan Soul Kitchen as a tool to remind people of the rich, cultural heritage of African American cuisine; as Terry points out, it’s only within the last half-century that people have moved away from growing their own produce and eating lower on the food chain. It’s not about proving that Soul food can be Slow Food, it’s just about reminding people that Soul food can once again be real food. Changing our diet doesn’t require obsessing with health food and restrictive eating; we need to focus on good ingredients and all of the balanced, nutrient-rich, delicious grub that they provide.
I haven’t met very many individuals who so fully embody the ideals of Slow Food as Bryant does. When so many people have bought into the industrial food system and forgotten how to cook and garden, eating well can begin to feel like a charged political act. But Bryant is disarmingly real and unpretentious, and his approach is creative and inclusive. It makes him a little like a sleeper agent for the Slow Food movement - he sneaks in with a good song and a delicious recipe and, before you know it, you’ve witnessed good (tasty, cultural heritage), clean (low-impact, plant-based meals) and fair (food access for a diverse people).
But Terry was here for a cooking demo, right? Well, he didn’t disappoint. Despite a finicky hot plate, he pulled off a tangy dish of Citrus Collards with Raisins Redux (you can find his recipe here). And, for the eager crowd, Chef James Bradley and his crew at Po’Shines prepared a few samples from Bryant’s cookbook. Garlicky lima bean spread, spicy goobers, and agave-sweetened orange orange pekoe tea let everyone have a taste of the bright, bold flavors of Bryant’s cooking. Thanks to all of you who came for making the event a knock-out success - we hope you got a bite.
More photos from the event are here on the Slow Food Portland Flickr page.
While Bryant was in town, we kept him very busy - right off of the plane, we rushed him to KBOO for an early radio interview. We’ll update this post with the link as soon as the audio for his segment is available.