Friday, 9 March 2012

Doing it justice

The Inspired Vegan
Bryant Terry

Bryant Terry is an award-winning American vegan chef, and he styles himself as a 'food justice activist'. This is a nice looking book in that popular squarish paperback format that just falls open in your hand, and immediately hooks you in. My copy opened at a recipe for grits with broad beans, fennel and thyme, with marginalia explaining how to shell broad beans, and suggesting a soundtrack of Robert Johnson's Walking Blues, and recommended reading too - 'Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression'.

What did I learn from this? I thought, this looks like a book of traditional Afro-American home-style recipes, freshened up to please our modern tastes with some well-chosen fresh veg and herbs, and veganised. Not something I have seen before, and yes, I'm sufficiently intrigued to read more. I have seen soundtrack notes on recipes in several books now, and I still quite like it. It feels like a glimpse into the author's private world, a fly-on-the-wall view of their own kitchen (without suggesting for a moment that anybody has flies in their kitchen). Of course, you have to do the 'willing suspension of disbelief' thing and truly believe that they do listen to this music when they're cooking (or eating) - if you start to view all the musical choices through the eyes of a cynic, it'll ruin the whole book for you.

I must say, I was less keen on being given further reading. It feels like homework, as if I need to be educated about things. Perhaps I do. Perhaps we all do. Made me want to do something a bit rebellious so I flicked to the section of colour pics. That's like eating your pudding before you've eaten up all your vegetables. But what a disappointment, the photos really aren't much good. Good job they're all in one place and not scattered through the whole book. They make everything look dark and dingy, when in fact these recipes are brilliantly colourful and zingy - but I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'd normally move past the opening page of gushing praise snippets pretty quickly, but my attention was snagged by the top line, 'Props for Bryant Terry's The Inspired Vegan'. I've never seen them called that before! Does the book need propping up? I'm duly notified that Bryant Terry is a culinary muse, whose great gift is to reconnect us with the radical joy that food brings, that the recipes are exuberant, healthful and playful, and that the book is 'incredibly dope'. In the UK a dope is an idiot, it's a rather archaic term of abuse, and the word is also used to mean drugs, mainly cannabis/marijuana. Not sure how a book can be dope, let's find out. The last line of the 'props' says 'This book will stay on your kitchen shelves for years.' I can't help thinking of it lurking up there, covered in dust and cobwebs (no flies in my kitchen, spiders eat them all. No, not really, honestly, my kitchen is lemon-fresh and as sparkly as the shake'n'vac lady).

The contents pages show me that in this book, things are grouped into meal plans. Sometimes I resent that. Duh? Like, I know how to put a meal together? Starters first, am I right? However, in this case, I like it very much. This isn't the kind of food I am used to, I'm interested to see how it all fits together. I do sometimes also resent being given prescriptive formulae for food to be served during rather contrived gatherings of friends and family (maybe resent is too strong a word. Maybe it's the idea of the contrived gatherings that's upsetting me) - but again, for some reason I'm prepared to suspend disbelief and go along with it this time. I think the possibility of me presiding over a Crimson Cookout, with cherry sangria, beetroot tapenade crostini, strawberry gazpacho shooters, grilled aubergine, red onion and tomato open sandwiches, bright-black fingerling potatoes with fresh plum-tomato ketchup and raspberry-lime ice pops is very slim. Nevertheless, I'm enjoying the idea of it. What a culinary rave-up, under the dripping trees in my back garden! It would almost be worth painting the shed red, too.

Into the Intro, and I'm bracing myself for the moral of the story. Bryant Terry is a campaigner for food justice. Whatever does that mean?

First, he tells me about the foodie paradise he lives in, in California, with its health food stores, the 40,000 foot Whole Foods Market, and the Saturday Farmers' Market, with stalls from 44 local farmers, 30 speciality food producers and various local artisans. Get the picture? Living in Manchester is just so depressing.

Then comes the bit that made me stare. A mile and a half away from this foodie paradise is another community, with some 30,000 mainly African American residents. No supermarkets. Fifty-three liquor stores. Often without cars, these people are forced to shop for their food at convenience stores which rarely offer any fresh fruit or veg. This is what Bryant Terry is upset about - areas of the United States where 'people are denied the basic human right to healthful, safe, affordable, and culturally appropriate food'. He goes on to point out that these communities have some of the highest rates of obesity and diet-related illness in the world. He's on a mission to sort it out.

A lot of vegans have political bees in their bonnets, and some of them are activists first, and cooks second. I love what they do, and long may it continue, but sometimes it feels as if the food is coming a poor second to the 'message', whatever it may be. But this guy knows food. He trained at New York's Natural Gourmet Institute and has been working as a vegan chef for ten years. Long enough to get really good, not so long that he's getting bored. It's obvious that he's still loving every minute of it. So, he starts the book with some basics - how to make stock, flavoured oils, spice blends, pesto... and this is thoughtful stuff, not just the same old routines. He puts white miso in his pesto! I'm guessing it delivers that savoury 'umami' flavour that traditionalists get from Parmesan. Got to try it. Lots of genuinely useful basics here, caramelised onion relish, oven-dried tomatoes, and a syrup made with raw cane sugar and cayenne that looks well worth adopting.

Into the recipes and there are those grits, with sparkling rosemary-grapefruit water (there are loads of nice ideas for refreshing drinks in this book), paprika peanuts, wilted dandelion greens with hot garlic dressing, and a ginger molasses cake. It's all well explained, with little boxes of tips (how to get the skin off walnuts, sort of thing). Ah! I've finally found out what a Johnny Cake is.

The menu plans are arranged by season, which is always good, and there are lots of fresh and inspiring new ideas in here. I was initially a bit surprised when the style veered away from African American and into Asian American, but it turns out that this is an integral part of the whole deal. Bryant is an African American and his wife is an Asian American - although that's possibly an over-simplification of the reason for his decision to include Asian dishes. It felt a bit strange at first, and I truly hate myself for even thinking it, but I did momentarily think that an African American might not be as good at at making Asian American food as an Asian American might be. Forgive my stupid preconceptions. This guy is a top-notch vegan chef and he turns his hand to all kinds of cooking with panache and aplomb. So we've got some curries that sound delicious, with sweet lassi and spicy chai, and later on some Mexican chocolate pudding, and then a whole Afro-Asian Jung Party! Making jungs looks fiddly, it's all about wrapping rice and veg in bamboo leaves. Have studied the recipe and accompanying diagrams and I'm still not sure if you are supposed to eat the bamboo leaves. (I've got bamboo in my garden, came through from next door, it's a menace. Doesn't look particularly edible but maybe it's delicious with a spot of spicy dipping sauce, in which case I may become delighted with its invasive tendencies.) I'm interested in the congee, although my attempt to sell it to G fell on rather stony ground. ('If I cooked up rice until it fell to bits and then kind of mashed it up, do you think that would be nice?' I guess I should have sweetened the pill by mentioning the ginger, and spinach, and caramelised onions. Might try it on him anyway. I think the gingered black sesame seed brittle would be well received...)

Each menu plan comes with a couple of pages of window-dressing at the front. Some are more successful than others. Afro-American history isn't something I know all that much about and I enjoyed some of the little essays about the key people who have made a difference. It feels cruel to criticise, but the piece that precedes that amazing crimson cookout collection really made me cringe. I can't even write about it. Perhaps if I was a proper parent, and not just a wicked stepmother. Perhaps if I was a bit less British. Read it yourself. Or dodge it and just do the cooking. The recipes look fabulous. Any chance of fingerling potatoes at the Manchester Farmers' Market?

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