Vegan Soul Kitchen (book review)

Review by Gail Davis | 09/11/09

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Da Capo Press, Philadelphia 2009
223 pages, $18.95 (paper)

Reviewed by Gail Davis

In his new book, Vegan Soul Kitchen eco-chef, food justice activist, and author Bryant Terry reminds readers that long "before the industrialization of food in the United States, African Americans living in the South included lots of fresh, nutrient-dense, leafy greens, tubers, and fruits in their everyday diets."

But as a white girl growing up in New York City, this certainly wasn't my impression of soul food or any other kind of Southern cooking. Admittedly, my exposure to it was limited to two-day-long drives to Miami with rest stops at South Carolina and Georgia roadside cafes. Drab and lifeless overcooked greens, runny grits, fatty BBQ pork ... these are my only memories of Southern foods. Little did I know that all of these dishes belied the true soul of soul food.

In Vegan Soul Kitchen Bryant Terry brings our focus back to fresh, whole, sustainable foods: Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains, and creates a world of vibrantly healthful, lively recipes. He reinvents African, Caribbean, African American, Native American, and European dishes, giving them a 21st-century flair while maintaining the distinctive flavors of these cuisines.

One drawback is that many of the recipes are somewhat labor-intensive and require prior planning. If you want to prepare Gumbo Z, for example, you'll need to make Hot Apple Cider Vinegar and Simple Stock ahead of time, unless you're prepared to spend three or more hours in the kitchen. And if you want to serve Savory Triple-Corn Grits, you'll need to have made some Creamed Cashews at least 12 hours in advance. But the extra prep time and planning are rewarded with scrumptious final results. The gumbo was filling and satisfyingly delicious, and the grits were phenomenal. (I never thought I'd hear myself say that about grits!)

But many of the recipes are much easier and quicker to make, as with Citrus Collards with Raisins Redux, featured as one of the "Top Six Good Eats" at the beginning of the book. Following the recipe precisely, the collards came out just right: Beautifully bright green and neither over nor under-cooked. The flavorful mix of greens, garlic, raisins, and orange certainly was a new culinary experience, and my palate had fun making sense of the lively interplay of tastes and textures. Bryant's unique recipe for Quinoa-Quinoa Cornbread not only was easy to make, it actually tasted better with each passing day.

Any cookbook that contains a new recipe for lemonade is just about worth its weight in gold to me. Bryant's recipe for Lavender Lemonade will be a permanent staple in my kitchen. It's subtly sweet, aromatic, and refreshing. And I was surprised and delighted to find a recipe for Little Potato and Sweet Potato Pancakes! With just the right blend of sweet potatoes and Yukon Golds, and the addition of vegan sour cream and applesauce, these yummy latkes brought back some very fond childhood memories.

Thoughtfully included with each recipe is a music soundtrack "to be enjoyed while cooking and eating." With artists ranging from Memphis Slim to Chaka Khan to Anoushka Shankar, this was musical ambrosia. A glass of organic red wine and the sounds of one of Bryant's suggested soundtracks made the whole ritual of meal preparation and dining a soulful experience.

I believe that Bryant Terry is an epicurean genius. And while I must re-emphasize that many of the dishes in Vegan Soul Kitchen are truly slow-food, the food is so hearty, flavorful, and satisfying that is very much worth the extra effort.


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