Welcome back to another fantastic year of reading and learning! This year marks the tenth anniversary of Community Read—our award-winning program designed to bring books and people together, and spur discussion around an important topic or idea. Over the ten years of Community Read, our program goals haven’t changed; we want to inspire generations to read, think, and engage with authors and their writing … plus, the more than 200 events in the community that explore the books each year help keep the conversation going. In turn, we strive to be innovators in our approach to picking literature that starts conversations. Author Bryant Terry’s book Black Food: Stories, Art, and Recipes from the African Diaspora—our 2023 Community Read featured selection—aligns with those goals. Black Food, in the author’s own words, “is a communal shrine to the shared culinary histories of the African diaspora.” In conversation with Terry, he takes time to answer questions about his purpose, which was not to just create another cookbook, but to curate a body of art, music, and written word that celebrates Black culture.
In interviews, a lot of your conversations about food stem from your childhood. Please tell us how your childhood informed the stories and cultural lens you focused on to create the body of work that is Black Food?
I often draw from childhood memories as well as the history of food throughout the African diaspora. Having lived in New York, an urban center often devoid of green space, it really helped me realize how privileged and blessed I was to grow up in the South. I grew up in the city suburbs but had family members with farms. I got to spend a lot of time when I was younger around those family members who came from rural, agrarian traditions and brought them to the city. So, it means so much to me to carry on these legacies that go back a few generations.
I think our industrialized food systems, late capitalism, creates this collective amnesia where so many of us forget about the traditions of growing food. Growing food in our homes, community gardens, and other spaces—making meals from scratch. Canning, pickling, and preserving. I always say that a large part of my work has been about helping us all remember these traditions and practices. Piecing them back together in the tradition of the West African concept, Sankofa. Looking backwards as we move forward. Drawing on those practices and traditions for stronger communities, better health, and more local, thriving, and sustainable future food systems.
Trying to create a space with a sustainable food culture is hard. For example, Illinois is considered the prairie state, full of green pastures and farmland. However, my hometown of East St. Louis is a place that experiences what you call “food apartheid.” There are grocery stores, but often those stores have higher tax rates and food cost. You said that this is often associated with capitalism. Can you explain?
So many communities both in rural and urban spaces are largely impacted by food apartheid. The impact it has is predominantly on Black and Brown communities. [However], I also think that people need to know that people living in rural spaces are equally food insecure. There are a lot of white people who are suffering from food insecurity, just as much as low income Black and Brown folks living in cities. These are systemic problems that we should all care about.
The reality is, you can go into a corner store, which often doubles as a liquor store, and get a lot of processed and packaged foods that are detrimental to [your] health. To add [insult to injury], often these same stores will carry products that you find in a conventional supermarket, and they’ll be double the price. It’s like punishing people for being impoverished or not having a lot of resources. I see this across the board, even in the way we often blame the victim in terms of looking at the exponential rise in diet-related health illnesses that we see in these communities, specifically the Black community.
What does it mean to say you should eat [healthier] when there are very few options to get healthy, fresh, affordable, and culturally appropriate food? It’s important for me to help people, push people to understand that while we’re addressing issues within our food system, we [must] keep one eye on these larger structures of oppression that affect us. Food is our number one indicator.
Thinking about health concerns and things people are dealing with regarding food insecurity … I don’t know about you, but I know this has certainly happened in my life and other Black families that although food is very celebrated it could also be a source of trauma and harm. Have you ever experienced dealing with trauma surrounding food and how have those negative experiences informed your work as a chef, curator of content, and author?
That’s a great question. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that question. The first thing that comes up for me when I ruminate on my childhood is that I experienced food trauma. It’s interesting because that trauma mostly comes out of being an athlete. I was a football player, the position of a running back. We had to be a certain weight in junior high school, and I just remember there were periods of starving myself and exercising obsessively because I wanted to be on the team and play this position. Before the season started, we had to weigh in and so this isn’t connected necessarily to lack of food access, but when I think about it that caused me some type of trauma.
I don’t know if it’s lingering, but I know in hindsight, I’m clear on me dealing with food disorders. No young person should be starving themselves or exercising obsessively to compete in the sport. I think it’s important for us to go within, do the work so we can heal those traumas. [Regarding] just general collective liberation, we need to be liberated and healed individually, and that will feed into this larger liberation. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that while it may seem that this isn’t connected to all these issues around health, food and farming, everything is connected. There is no disconnection. If you aren’t well, none of us are well.
Perhaps one of my favorite quotes from the book is “Like Black people, this book contains multitudes.” Why do you believe that was so important to state in the introduction?
One of the things that I wanted to do with Black Food is really show the diverse food traditions throughout the African diaspora, the diverse viewpoints, the varied [kinds] of thread that come together to create this larger African diasporic food. Black people aren’t a monolith. The way that we eat isn’t monolithic. I think one of my larger goals is to just help us. Not the wider culture, this is for us.
When I reached out to the over 100 contributors to ask if they will potentially contribute to Black Food, I shared a quote by Toni Morrison where she talks about racism being a distraction and how that robs us of our humanity, of our ability to just be. What I told people when they were writing their essay or creating their recipe, or composing [their] art, whatever their contribution was, I wanted folks to do it without any concern for the white gaze. I wanted those things to be created for us, by us. FUBU.
Obviously, we’re inviting. I’m inviting everyone to peek in and listen to the conversation. But this is about us. The reality is even a lot of Black folks, people of African descent, have [a] skewed notion of our food traditions. We vilify our food. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people talking so negatively about what they imagine is Black food. Typically, what they imagine is soul food. This idea our food is unhealthy and its slave food. I am really bothered by the reductive ways that people think about these very complex and diverse food traditions. When you strip them down to their core, when you get back to the foundation of them, they’re rooted largely in vegetables. You know many cultures and I would argue they’re the key to our liberation. So, this book for me was about just bringing this chorus of diverse voices together to celebrate us.
That’s so good. I think perhaps this next quote was also my favorite. I feel like in this quote you wrapped a nice little bow around it. What you said was crucial to us. “Thriving is creating the broadest table with seats reserved for all of our people throughout the diaspora.” Now that you’re on the other side of this publication, what does that continue to look like for you?
I think it might be clear if people read the introduction, but I was alluding to the exclusion and homophobia that often excludes gender, non-conforming, and queer Black folks. These are our people. These are human beings. These are our brothers and sisters, and I could not create; I mean, it would have been dishonest for me to write a book without uplifting, acknowledging my queer brothers and sisters.
Many chapters in the book were inspired by in person programming that I did in my role as Chef in Residence at the Museum of the African Diaspora. I have a program, Black Queer Food, where I brought together [several] of my Black queer colleagues in the food space to talk about the ways they experience both racism, homophobia, and just their lived experiences as gender, non-conforming, and queer people who work in the food space. And when we talk about collective liberation, historically, we exclude queer folks. Even though they have often been the architects and the people leading movements. I think of Bayard Rustin, who was the architect of the March on Washington. People associate Dr. Martin Luther King, [Jr.] with that because he was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, but the person who put that together was a Black, queer man.
I think we [must] understand that if we aren’t all free none of us are free. So, I really wanted to create space to uplift and celebrate members of our community who are often pushed to the margins. We should all be stepping up and being courageous. I knew that there was a risk. People are going to feel like, you know [we’re] just talking about food. What does that have to do with anything? It has to do with everything! I could tell [people] are a little agitated by that chapter and I’m like, you got to work that out on your own.
I heard you say in a recent interview that this was your last publication. I wanted to ask, what’s next? What is going to be your legacy moving forward?
It’s an evolution. It’s not my last book, I am a publisher now. I have a publishing imprint with Random House [called] 4 Color Books. In fact, Black Food was our flagship publication and we’ve acquired about five books so far. I’ll be publishing the books of others. I really want to focus on uplifting budding authors, other people whose voices need to be heard. I have had a thriving career as an author and I always wanted to go out on top and dare I say, Black Food was the top. [It is] the most critically acclaimed cookbook to come out in 2020. We have got so many accolades, but most important it resonated with people.
So, I’m excited about growing as a publisher and I’m also excited about growing as a contemporary artist. This year I’ve been at UC Berkeley on fellowship, and I’ve been working between Black Studies and the Art Practice department. I have been in the studio making art and I’m really excited about growing as a contemporary artist.
Editor’s Note: Please join us for two free upcoming virtual Community Read discussions. On April 18, 2023 at 6:30 pm, join us online for Cooking Inspiration with Bryant Terry: A Community Read Conversation About Black Food, a fun cooking demonstration and discussion of the inspiration behind and themes of Black Food. On April 25, 2023 at 6:30 pm, join us online for Black Food Roundtable: A Community Read Conversation with Bryant Terry, Omar Tate, and Thérèse Nelson as Terry and Black Food contributors Tate—Philadelphia-rooted artist and chef—and Nelson—chef, writer, podcast host, and founder of BlackCulinaryHistory.com—engage in a lively online discussion about the book. Registration is required.