Bryant Terry is a chef, activist and author of three books including Grub: Ideas for an Organic Urban Kitchen, which he co-authored with Anna Lappe’. He is also the host of the web series Urban Organic. The interview was conducted by Arty Mangan of Bioneers
AM: What is grub?
Bryant: When Anna and I started throwing around ideas about for the book, we thought about the terms organic and sustainable, which we embrace, but we didn’t find a term that talks about things beyond the quality of food. So we reinvented the term ‘grub’. Our definition includes not only the quality of food, but also things like worker’s rights. Grub is local, sustainable food that is available to everyone regardless of geographic location or economic status. It’s about food that’s grown locally, that’s in season, that respects the farmer, respects the farm workers. It’s also food that’s accessible to people because a lot of times there’s this idea that healthy food is for affluent baby boomers. This food should be available to everyone.
AM: Who are some of the people that have inspired you to do what you do?
Bryant: I started from childhood because my interest in and passion for food and farming issues come from my grandparents. Both of my grandfathers grew up in rural Mississippi and worked on farms that their families owned. They brought the foods, and the food ways and survival skills from the country into an urban environment. When we were growing up, although I lived in the city, both of my grandparents had these huge organic gardens in their backyards. My parents told me how they were very adamant that they weren’t going to put a lot of chemicals on the food. So when we were growing up we learned about planting and harvesting. And because we had such a big family and all of us were a part of helping them prepare meals, we’d be shelling, snapping, shucking and doing everything that needed to be done to prepare the meals. I was one who took an interest in cooking. I learned a lot from my grandparents about cooking. So a lot of my foundation in the work that I do now goes back to my family.
My political entrée was when I was in graduate school studying history. And I learned more about the Black Panthers and the work that they were doing in Oakland around social justice and the way in which they included food, like the grocery giveaways. They had this analysis around poverty, malnutrition and institutional injustice that inspired me. I was so excited about how they looked at those issues back in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. I see my work as part of that continuum.
AM: That’s something that people don’t remember about the Black Panthers- how they provided food access.
Bryant: I talk about this in my public presentation a lot: the sensational portrayal of the Black Panthers as crazy gun totting radicals. That erases the history of some very meaningful programs that they did in the community. The food piece was just one. They had everything from bartering, teaching people how to do plumbing, teaching people how to repair shoes- useful basic skills. African American and other communities need these kinds of small skill economies, built on the expertise of people in their local communities.
AM: I read a comment written to you that said, “thank you for showing people that you can be Black and green and healthy”. What are the challenges?
Bryant: It was more challenging initially when I just got into the work, because so many people didn’t see the importance of it. When I first started doing the work on the East Coast, people were starting to develop community gardens and urban farms, trying to connect people living in urban environments with farmers in rural areas and creating CSAs throughout New York City.
I saw so many young and even older people who were producing food, or who were getting food from local farmers that didn’t know how to cook it; especially the different varieties of fruits and vegetables that they might not be that familiar with. So I thought it was important that we go back to the kitchen, take it back to the table communally and teach young people specifically about cooking; and the art and beauty of getting in the kitchen and preparing food. I wanted to educate them about food and farming issues that concurrently empower them and give them skills to actually be able to make these foods themselves and learn skills that they can share with their families to help them to be more independent. But a lot of people initially didn’t see the value of it. I would hear things like, ‘Oh that’s a cooking class or a cooking project.’ People didn’t understand the way in which I was really framing this issue around teaching people how to cook, teaching them about food and farming issues as a part and parcel of the social justice movement.
A lot of the projects that were doing work around youth leadership, youth organizing, youth development that didn’t have this whole piece about consumption and food and farming issues. For me it was almost a prerequisite to talk about these things because if we’re talking about creating a social justice movement, if we’re talking about helping young people to be healthy adults, then what they’re eating, how they’re connecting with food, is essential and for me a prerequisite to many of the other issues.
People were surprised that, as young African American man, I was so deeply connected to and concerned about these issues. I grew up in the southeastern part of the United States and had access to family land, and my family imparted in me, at an early age, a connection to the Earth. Often I have to educate people, including African Americans, that after Native Americans, African Americans were the landkeepers in this country. We were the agricultural backbone throughout the period of enslavement. The reason that this is such a prosperous country is because of the free labor of African slaves for 300 years. For me it’s about reclaiming this legacy of being connected to the Earth given that we've been so disconnected from it through urbanization.
AM: There is a Chinese proverb that reminds me of the way you teach, “Tell me and I’ll probably forget. Show me and I might remember. Get me involved, and I’ll learn it forever.”
Bryant: Young people do not want to be talked to or lectured to. My project [b-healthy] started with a group of activists that helped me get it off the ground. We understood that young people are coming from a long day in school to an after school project. And the last thing they wanted to do was be in a two hour workshop in which they’re being talked to or talked at. We certainly wanted to create space for us to impart information and educate them. But we also understood that they have so much knowledge that we wanted them to share. We wanted it to be a conversation. We thought that the best way to impart that information was for it to be experiential. The cooking piece is so crucial because when they’re getting in the kitchen and getting their hands dirty and actually preparing the foods, they can feel empowered. They were much more likely to try the food if they were cooking it, because it was their creation.
When trying to get young people to try new foods I ask them to try it at least three times. The first time they’re just getting used to it. By the second time they warm up. And usually by the third time, foods that they would never have considered eating, they were actually excited about. The important thing was that they prepared it and that made them at least want to give it a try.
The way that I’ve seen more people transform their relationship to food is the grub parties. I could get on a soapbox and talk all day and some people might respond to that. It’s much more effective going to a farmers market or getting some food from a local community garden and cooking some really good food together. One of the obstacles is a lot of people just don’t have the skills to take fresh, local food and make it really tasty. If you want to transform people’s ideas about healthy food, it has to be delicious, because there’s a stereotype that healthy food is bland and tasteless. Just making it fun and at the same time putting it in context. We certainly talk about our ideas and where the food came from and open up a conversation about the way in which everyone is a part of this movement, whether they realize it or not; helping people to understand that every dollar they spend is a vote for the public food system. People have power as consumers, and as community members who are able to put people in office who advocate for a healthy food system.
Anna and I encourage other people to have grub parties. We want to have a ripple effect of people having small sustainable dinner parties to share the food and just think about it in a different way. One young woman in the Bay Area, who has over 150 people in her database, has monthly grub parties with different themes.
People frame activism in their mind in a certain way, whether it’s out in the streets protesting or doing some hardcore organizing. I try to help people understand that wherever you enter, whatever your passion and skills are, there’s some impact you can make, like the simple act of going to the farmer’s market, meeting the farmer who’s producing the food, giving him your dollars and getting the most food value for your money. Growing local, seasonal produce is something that’s having a huge impact. Each pebble that we’re throwing in the pond is having a ripple effect. And the grub parties are a great way of doing that because people just feel like wow I didn’t know an apple could taste this good, or that lettuce could be this fresh.
AM: You can make change and celebrate at the same time. Here’s a quote of yours, ‘Grub is a product of being a part of the Hip Hop generation.’
Bryant: The work that I was doing before this was journalism for Hip Hop magazines in New York City. I grew up a part of the Hip Hop generation so in terms of kind of creating an identity for my work and thinking about the book project, I wanted to bring together a lot of those influences with visual art, music, cooking- a collage of those elements. So people who read the book are going to come to it for different reasons. Some people probably approach it from an intellectual standpoint and want to know about the issues, that’s the front section. Some people are just into cooking and they’re not as deeply invested in knowing about all the politics around food. So they can just cook some new and interesting funky recipes. The hope is that people who are just cooking eventually think about the politics and go through the section in the front; and the people who are just thinking about the ideas and politics of food, eventually feel compelled to get into the kitchen and learn more about cooking.