Battered fried chicke, buttery yams glistening with brown sugar, collard greens soaked in pork fat—this is how most of us imagine soul food. But these artery-clogging examples are a misperception, says Bryant Terry, a self-described eco chef and food justice activist, and the author of Vegan Soul Kitchen (Da Capo/Perseus, 2009). “Starting in the 1960s,” Terry says, “the term ‘soul food’ was applied only to the ‘comfort foods’ of African-American cuisine—dishes like pig’s feet, pig’s intestines (chitterlings), and fried livers.”
True African-American cooking—a blend of culinary traditions from Africa, the Caribbean, the American South, and Europe—is much more than fatty indulgences. And, Terry is making it his mission to reclaim—and promote—the fresh, sustainable, and largely organic qualities of genuine soul food.
EAT LOCAL. Growing up in Memphis, Tenn., in the 1970s, Terry saw his grandparents—and all their neighbors— growing their own vegetables and fruits. “The food was as local and as fresh as my granddad going out and harvesting some greens right before he cooked them,” he says. Nothing was wasted, Terry recalls. You made use of every piece of produce you had, whether that meant tossing carrot tips into the soup pot, boiling tough bitter greens until they softened and mellowed, or pickling the rinds of melons that might otherwise be thrown away.
LOOK BACK. For Terry, making soul food healthier has been about returning to its roots while injecting contemporary techniques and ingredients. His vegan gumbo isn’t an ultramodern twist on the familiar shrimp-, chicken-, or sausage-based dish; it’s a variation on a meatless dish prepared by New Orleans Creoles during Lent.
LIGHTEN UP. There are dozens of tricks for easing the caloric and cholesterol content of soul food. Tease out the flavor of sweet potatoes with roasted onions and maple-candied pecans instead of butter or refined sugar (see our recipe, opposite). Mix seasoned vegetables and dried herbs with white beans and you won’t miss the pork fat. Fry catfish in the oven (not the deep fryer) to reveal the fish’s true flavor, and pair it with the raw crunch of marinated collard greens. “Healthy soul food is for everyone,” says Terry, “regardless of where you live, how much money you make, or the color of your skin.” New Orleans legend has it that you will gain one new friend for every green you toss into the gumbo pot.
GREAT GREENS FOR YOUR HEALTH
Integral to the soul-food diet, greens are high in vitamins A, E, C, and K, as well as calcium and iron.
MUSTARD GREENS. Pungent and peppery, mustard greens pair well with milder greens and are an especially good source of calcium. Boil until tender and chop them once they’re cooled, then cook them down further with some garlic, salt, and pepper for a fullflavored side dish.
COLLARD GREENS. Most people overcook collards, but the flavor—mild, with a bit of smokiness—is best raw. Younger leaves, chopped finely or in a chiffonade, are better for salads and slaws. They’re high in antioxidants like beta-carotene, which help protect your cells from free-radical damage.
KALE. Most kale varieties come from the broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts family, all of which are rich in cancer-fighting phytonutrients. Kale’s mild, earthy flavor makes it ideal for sautés and stir-fries.
BEET GREENS & CARROT TOPS. Next time you crop off the tops of your beets and carrots, chop and gently wilt them in a gumbo or soup. Beet greens are thought to promote heart health, and the vitamin A in carrot tops is good for the lungs.
PEPPERGRASS. A wild green that’s been known to populate urban boulevard medians, peppergrass—rich in iron and folic acid—is favored by older New Orleans Creoles for use in gumbo. Like arugula, it’s also good in salads.