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Food for the Soul

African-American cuisine gets healthy in Bryant Terry's newest book.

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I have a habit of cooking collard greens to death. That's how my mama and my granny cooked them. And that's how Memphis native and cookbook author Bryant Terry's family prepared them as well.

But leave it to Terry, food-justice activist and author of Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, and Creative African-American Cuisine (Da Capo Press, $18.95), to flip the script. When the book landed on my desk, I knew his "Citrus Collards with Raisins Redux" would be the first dish I sampled. Instead of boiling collards for an hour or so, the recipe calls for a shorter cooking time, followed by a quick sauté with orange juice and plump raisins.

Like many of Terry's dishes, the collards recipe puts a healthy twist on a soul-food classic. No more fatback and oil. And no more boiling away all the nutrients.

"When people think of soul food, they think of deep-fried fatty meats, sugary desserts, and animal innards," says Terry by phone from his home in Oakland, California. "But growing up, we didn't eat that every day. We ate those things on holidays and festive occasions."

Unfortunately, things have changed for the worse since Terry's childhood days picking fresh vegetables from his grandfather's urban garden in South Memphis.

"Because of the industrialization of our food system, people eat [fatty foods] all the time now," Terry says.

In Vegan Soul Kitchen, Terry draws upon his roots to create seasonal, healthy, animal-free alternatives to butter-drenched soul-food staples. Take, for example, his "Cajun-Creole-Spiced Tempeh Pieces with Creamy Grits," a spin on classic shrimp and grits. I made this dish for a quick week-night dinner. Terry's spicy, seasoned tempeh combined with plump cherry tomatoes and leeks and served atop slow-cooked corn grits satisfied my craving for comfort food.

Though Bryant uses plant-based meat substitutes like tempeh, tofu, and seitan (also known as wheat meat) and refrains from using eggs, cheese, or honey, he doesn't call himself a vegan.

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"My journey with eating has been so fluid, and my ideas have changed over the years," Terry says. "I've been a vegetarian, a vegan, a fruitarian for one summer in college, and a raw-foodist in grad school. I choose not to give my diet a title anymore."

However, Terry opposes factory farming and believes a plant-based, seasonal diet is better for the environment and the local economy. Before writing Vegan Soul Kitchen, Terry co-authored Grub: Ideas for the Urban Organic Kitchen (a book that touted eating locally, seasonally, and organically) with Anna Lappé.

I've read Grub, so I knew better when I used out-of-season corn to make "Succotash Soup with Garlicky Cornbread Croutons" from Vegan Soul Kitchen. In the recipe header, Terry even encourages readers to wait until "the summer months when corn is at its freshest." Though the soup was delicious in April, I'm certain it will taste even better made with locally grown corn at peak season.

Unlike many vegan cookbooks that call for hard-to-find specialty ingredients, most of Terry's recipes require a few simple ingredients that can be purchased at farmers markets and mainstream grocery stores. The handful of not-so-common ingredients in the book — such as kombu — are high in nutrients and worth the drive to a health-food store.

"I didn't want to make this a cookbook where people had to have access to a corporate health-food store to make the recipes," Terry says. "But I also wanted to push readers out of their comfort zone. People may not be familiar with agave nectar, but it's a low-glycemic sweetener that people in the South need to know about because of the high rate of diabetes."

Terry also includes music recommendations (and sometimes film and art suggestions) with each recipe. For example, according to the book, I should have been listening to "Succotash" by Herbie Hancock when making the soup.

"I love music, and when I'm cooking, I'm always playing music. Sometimes a song will spark an idea for a recipe," Terry says. "I wanted to bring that appreciation for film, art, and music to my readers. We all need to be integrating those things."

In addition to art and music appreciation, Terry wants Vegan Soul Kitchen to encourage omnivores to consider a healthier way to prepare classic African-American dishes. He hopes the food speaks for itself.

"If you can present food that's delicious and meat-free, then people will want to know more about the politics and the heady intellectual issues around food," Terry says. "I didn't want the book to be heavy on vegan politics, but I'm happy to get people to the door. There are other people in the vegan movement who can pick up where I left off. I'm just recruiting people into the club."

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