Just because a person is vegan doesn't mean he or she doesn't like to party. Just look at Bryant Terry, author of the cookbook Afro-Vegan: Farm-Fresh African, Caribbean, and Southern Flavors Remixed.
When the 41-year-old Oakland resident discovered his Mohawk Bend appearance was falling on Fat Tuesday, the former New Orleans citizen knew he had to throw a feast. And with a menu that is slated to include red beet tapenade crostini, dandelion salad with pecan dressing, black-eyed pea fritters served with mustard greens harissa, muscovado-roasted plantains, gumbo zav with hot pepper vinegar, roasted winter vegetable jambalaya and cafe brulot ice cream cookies, it sounds like he'll succeed.
The event also includes Mardi Gras staples such as jazz and beads, but as of this writing there is no word on whether or not women will lift their shirts or if you'll get so drunk on alcoholic slushees that you'll take off all your clothes and pass out on Bourbon Street. And if those last two sound like hyperbole, then obviously you've never been to New Orleans.
Still, we talked to Terry to discuss his plans for the evening and the difficulties in creating Afro vegan cuisine.
SQUID INK: There's no such thing as “Afro cuisine,” right?
BRYANT TERRY: That's what I'm creating. When I talk about “Afro vegan,” I'm thinking more “Afro” in terms of the diaspora, so throughout the African continent and places where the African people have traveled and made their homes. But, yeah, there is no such thing as African cuisine. There are so many cuisines throughout the continent. One of the main audiences I'm speaking to through this book is African-Americans. Some of the places I'm inspired by isn't necessarily from places considered black African places. A lot of the stuff I am inspired by comes from north Africa. For me, it's more about this idea of Africa and really celebrating this idea of Africa being the birthplace of all humanity.
Do African cuisines lend themselves to being veganized?
In terms of veganizing food, I don't even think about it in that way because, to me, that smacks of this old-school vegan cookery where people are taking meat-heavy dishes, deleting the meat and adding tofu. What's more interesting to me is looking at dishes that already have kind of a vegetable-centric nature to them. It might be a vegetable stew that has a lot of vegetables but it might use a bone broth. That's not a stretch for me to take a stew like that and creatively take out the animal products.
When researching for your book, did you come across any dishes you hadn't had the “real” version of?
I wasn't taking berbere spiced chicken and somehow trying to make that into a vegan dish. It was mostly me looking at a vegetable side, stew or soup and a lot of it, surprisingly, didn't have meat in it because, at least in west and central Africa, a lot of those diets were very vegetable-centric. There were a lot of recipes and ideas out there from those places where there's just so much to play with that the meat thing didn't trip me up at all.
So your event is on Fat Tuesday and I hear they'll be beads and jazz. Did you have anything to do with that or just the menu?
It was my idea. When I was thinking about the event, it was when my wife and I were trying to sync our calendars so I could be gone for a day. I noticed it was Mardi Gras, so I thought if it's Mardi Gras we need to make this a party. I went to college in New Orleans and I feel like Cajun/Creole/Louisiana cooking probably drives the way I cook more than any other cuisine because that cuisine is a blending of all these culinary traditions that I want to play with. I have a lot of recipes that are inspired by Louisiana cooking, so I just pulled together a menu based on, pretty much, stuff I had. I don't think I created any original recipes for this dinner.
If you were on your deathbed, which menu item are you going with?
Holy crap! I can't do one. I gotta do two together because when we talk about eating a vegan meal, it's important to have protein in there. The black-eyed pea fritters with the mustard greens harissa is always money. I don't care how meat-centric your diet is, how anti vegetarian or vegan you are — that dish wins people over because it's fatty, it's crunchy, it's satisfying and the mustard greens harissa is so flavorful. I don't want to be eating deep fried fritters every day, but for a party? Hey. This is the way to go. And the gumbo zav. Most people think about your seafood, meat-heavy stew, but the thing about Louisiana is it's a traditionally Roman Catholic state, so people observe Lent and traditionally people didn't eat meat. People created this gumbo as something they could eat during Lent. It would often have up to nine different vegetables. The last time I was in New Orleans I was told you have to ensure the number of greens is odd. You don't want to have an even number because that's bad luck. It's another where people who don't love leafy green vegetables totally love this dish.
Let's talk about the ice cream cookies because that's most important.
They're inspired by cafe brulot, which is an after-dinner digestif. It's coffee, a little alcohol and a lot of spices in there. So I thought it could be very exciting as a cookie because they're thin and light but so complexly flavored with cinnamon and clove. When I was thinking about this party, I thought, “Why not do ice cream cookies?” I don't know what kind of ice cream the chef is planning to put in there. Frankly, he could use Coconut Bliss and as long as it's a simple, neutral ice cream, it's going to be all good. That is the thing I'm most excited about having for that meal, actually.