Cooking the Books: February: Afro-Vegan
by Bryant Terry
“Do you love browsing though [sic] cookbooks and trying new recipes? Do you enjoy sharing and sampling new dishes? Then grab your apron and attend this delicious book club. Every meeting will have a unique food inspired theme. Each club member will bring a sample of a dish from a library cookbook that they reviewed. We will eat and discuss the various cookbooks and recipes. Cookbooks will be available at the meeting to checkout for the next month's topic. The library will provide, plates, utensils, and beverages.”
In preparation for Cooking the Books, Noah and I wandered the cookbook section at the library to find a book with something we wanted to cook. February's theme was “healthy”; this prompted us to define what healthy cooking means to us and in the end, we decided we define healthy as anything in moderation.
After flipping through cookbooks with no pictures and others filled with beautiful desserts, I chose Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean & Southern Flavors Remixed by Bryant Terry. I flipped through the recipes and thought they sounded good but the real reason I chose this cookbook was because it’s vegan; I wouldn’t have to figure out what to make for Sam and I wouldn’t need to make any dairy substitutions. When I brought it home, I discovered I was in for quite the cooking adventure.
Terry’s introduction establishes the goal of the cookbook: “to move Afro-diasporic food from the margins” (1). He recognizes that African-diasporic people helped shape many culinary tastes in many ways, yet their roots and history are mostly unknown.
“Afro-diasporic foodways (that is, the shape and development of food traditions) carry our history, memories and stories. They connect us to our ancestors and bring the past into the present day. They also have the potential to save our lives” (2).
Not only does Terry call for honoring the connection to ancestors through cooking, but he says the health of Afro-diasporic people has suffered due to an adoption of a Western diet (2). Access to fresh food has led to “some of the highest rates of preventable diet-related illnesses,” like diabetes, in African-Americans in the US.
Terry considers food justice, “the basic human right to fresh, safe, affordable, and culturally appropriate food in all communities,” integral to our lives and seeks to promote food justice alongside reclaiming ancestral knowledge (2).
But why vegan? Terry says that “the over-consumption of animal protein puts people at increased risk of preventable, diet-related illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension, and an increasing number of medical professionals are endorsing plant-centered diets for optimal health” (3). Published in 2014, this piece of advice on meat consumption is still a common call to go vegan. New vegan cookbooks—like those by Thug Kitchen and Terry's latest book, Vegetable Kingdom—continue to move consumers toward a vegan (or in some cases a more plant-forward) diet.
It isn't just health that leads Terry toward veganism; it's also the importance of ancestral food and memories: “Delicious as they are, these dishes do not stand alone—they are supported by culture, tradition, and memories” (4). For Terry, ”gardening, spending time with family, and building community” happen around the table (4).
All of these insights come from the introduction. As a white woman reading and preparing to cook, I began to feel a risk of cultural appropriation. Am I the audience this cookbook was intended for? By making recipes from this cookbook, am I contributing to oppression? The introduction helps me recognize my positionality as a cook and researcher while also welcoming me to cook this food:
“To be clear, Afro-Vegan is for everyone. I love feeding my diverse circle of family, friends, and fans vibrant and yummy home cooked food that reflects my values around health, sustainability, compassion, and community building. This book’s guiding philosophy is simple: lovingly prepared food with fresh, high-quality ingredients will always make a wholesome and delicious meal” (5).
Terry goes on to say that “This book honors the tradition of from-scratch cooking of our ancestors, and I invite you to make time to take your time” (5). I headed Terry’s call to take my time as I made a few recipes from the book.
At the top of each recipe, Terry includes the recipe yield and a few elements to enhance the cook’s cultural experience: a soundtrack and the occasional book. The addition of music adds to Terry’s concept of remix for the book. Taking traditional African, Caribbean, and Southern flavors, the remix is clear—Terry offers a healthy, ancestrally-driven take on cultural food by making them vegan. The concept of remix is one that is also used in the field of rhetoric and writing studies. Adam Banks’ Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age uses the mixtape and remix to use the concept of the DJ to select, arrange, layer, sample, beat-match, and blend theory with community-engaged research (35). Cooking from Afro-Vegan reminded me of Banks' definition of remix as including critical reflection (90). Cookbooks, like Terry's, push us to think about connections between food and culture, reflecting on way food tells stories across generations.
Flipping through the recipes, I found Curried Scalloped Potatoes with Coconut Milk (97). I couldn’t recall the last time I had scalloped potatoes (probably something like 10 years ago). To start the potato-making process, I first had to make a batch of Jamaican Curry Powder (14). Terry encourages readers to grind their own spices after toasting them. This process was something I’d never done, so I fully embraced it. After purchasing a mortar and pestle—a kitchen item I’ve wanted for a while—I found the song “Jah Know” by Midnite on the album Be Strong to play while I toasted coriander, cumin seeds, fenugreek seeds, and yellow mustard seeds, ground them, and combined the freshly toasted spices with turmeric, allspice, ginger, cayenne, and cloves. I wasn’t sure what fenugreek was but when it started toasting, the smell was obvious; fenugreek gave me a name for what I think of as the quintessential curry smell. A book, Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dancehall Culture in Jamaica by Norman C. Stolzoff also accompanied this recipe.
I changed the song to “Good Ways” by Sizzle Kalonji from Good Ways while I switched to making the Curried Scalloped Potatoes with Coconut Milk. I learned that scalloped potatoes are a Southern dish known for their thin potato slices. The potatoes simmer in coconut milk for 20 minutes and then bake for 35-50, cooling for 15 before serving. While the potatoes were in the oven, I decided to add beer to the Afro-vegan experience and ran to The Spirit Shop for some Red Stripe. Cooking from Afro-Vegan prompted me to ask if Red Stripe is actually Jamaican beer. I discovered that Red Stripe was first brewed in Jamaica in 1928 and came to the US in the 1980s.
Pleased with the scalloped potatoes, I couldn’t wait to make a dish to share at Cooking the Books. I knew I wouldn't have time between class and the event to make something day-of, so I searched for a dish that didn't need to be served hot. I couldn't resist making something sweet from Afro-Vegan before returning it to the library, so I opted to make the Cocoa-Spice Cake with Crystallized Ginger and Coconut-Chocolate Ganache (174). The Wednesday before Cooking the Books I put on “Marcus Garvey” by Burning Spear from Marcus Garvey/Garvey’s Ghost and used the food processor to blend this chocolatey ginger cake made with avocado.
Perhaps a cake doesn’t quite fit into the “healthy” theme, but everything is healthy in moderation.I shared my cake and review of Afro-Vegan with the other attendees while we ate Brussels sprouts, an Italian soup, hummus, and several other healthy-inspired dishes.