Memphian Bryant Terry wasn't raised to become a food activist, but his grandparents, both sets of them from rural Mississippi, taught him right -- right out of their backyard gardens. The produce was seasonal. It wasn't genetically modified or chemically coated. And it was there to enjoy and to share. It was grub, great grub. That word takes on new meaning in the book that Terry has co-authored with Anna Lappé, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen (Tarcher/Penguin).
The authors aren't the only ones, of course, calling for a revolution in America's awful eating habits, but in one easy-to-read volume they serve it to you plain and risk-free: Eat what's in-season and, if you can, make it organic. Avoid the agri-giants. Respect the rights of farm workers. Make fair-trade a just cause. And enjoy the health benefits of eating low on the food chain.
The authors' Web site, EatGrub.com, is a handy intro. But Lappé, in the book's opening chapters, spells out what's wrong medically, politically, and ethically with the food most of us (over)eat and what we can do about it. Avoid these pages, however, if you don't mind a dash of hydraulic fluid in your modern-day burger.
But do "getcha grub on" by turning to the multicultural and holiday menus -- the majority of them animal-fat-free -- that Terry has assembled. And yes, there are tips on cooking brown rice. (Real '70s, even Terry admits.) But there's also a recipe for the seemingly impossible but simple: "Good Grilled Okra." Other recipes are as fancy as can be -- anyone for "Picadillo-Stuffed Chayote with Rutabaga-Garlic Sauce"? -- which makes the recipes fancy enough for your own "grub party."
Terry says go for it. Invite some friends over and grab some wine. Spread the word. He even supplies the background music, and in the case of his "Straight-Edge Punk Brunch Buffet (DIY)," that means eating to the noise of -- again the seemingly impossible -- Minor Threat.
One question, though: How did Bryant Terry go from Bishop Byrne High School in Memphis to authoring a (kindly) manifesto on right-eating and -thinking?
Answer: He became a food justice advocate after earning a B.A. in English from Xavier University in Louisiana, an M.A. in American history from New York University, and a degree from the Natural Gourmet Cookery School. He also set up his own nonprofit, b-healthy (Building Healthy Eating and Lifestyles To Help Youth), in New York City in 2001.
That nonprofit had its roots in history -- personal history. Terry remembered his family's community-minded gardens. He recalled the Black Panthers -- not as gun-toting radicals but as food distributors among African-American youth in the late 1960s. He witnessed first-hand in the '90s the dietary impact of institutional racism in the boroughs of New York: disadvantaged children fed on the most fattening, the most processed stuff -- low-nutrient, high-calorie "junk" he called it in a phone interview from his home in Oakland, California.
When he met Lappé in 2003, she'd already addressed the issue of world hunger and poverty in Hope's Edge, a book she co-wrote with her famous mother, Frances Moore Lappé, author of Diet for a Small Planet. Terry and Lappé clicked, and a book was born: Lappé would handle the hard data, plus the nuts and bolts of setting up your own organic kitchen; Terry would supply the recipes.
"There's still a misconception that 'healthy' means 'bland,'" Terry makes it a point to say. "But healthy food needs to be delicious. When you choose 'grub,' you don't have to give up flavor. You don't have to give up much at all -- except a mouthful of pesticides.
Without being didactic about it, Anna and I want to bring the food to life," he adds. "But we also want to hold onto family recipes, to make those connections with parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
"I looked at the recipes I grew up with. And one of the greatest joys of writing this book has been the effect it's had on my family. Now my parents don't use white sugar. They drink organic milk. They eat free-range chicken. My sister, a doctor in New Orleans ... she's now using nutrition as a part of preventative treatment. These may be small changes, incremental changes, but they're something to celebrate."
But that leads to the question: Why isn't Bryant Terry celebrating with a booksigning in his very own hometown?
"That's already slated for the fall," he explains. "Otherwise, my family would kill me!"
(FYI: You need grub for your own urban kitchen? The Farmers' Market at downtown's Central Station, which promises to offer home-grown produce and baked goods, cooking tips and health screenings, is set for a grand opening on Saturday, May 13th. It will run every Saturday til October. The hours: 7 a.m.-1 p.m.)