Speaker 1: Helen Rosner is a food expert for The New Yorker. One of her favorite things to do is to get together with another pro, a writer, or a chef, and find something new to cook.
Helen Rosner: I'm going to get up the fennel and the citrus.
Speaker 1: During the pandemic, before it was really safe to go into other people's homes or kitchens, Helen got pretty creative.
Helen Rosner: I'm Helen Rosner, I'm a staff writer at The New Yorker. I am standing in my Brooklyn kitchen right now in front of a cutting board with a pile of fennel, parsley, vinegar, a couple of bags of plantain chips. There's a lot of really cool interesting stuff here in front of me. The most important thing in front of me is my phone, which is currently in the middle of a FaceTime call with the Chef, Bryant Terry.
Bryant Terry: Hey, Helen.
Helen Rosner: Hey, how's it going? The author of the cookbook, Vegetable Kingdom, which is one of my favorite books of the year.
Speaker 1: Helen Rosner talked with Bryant Terry in 2020.
Helen Rosner: We're going to make a recipe for-- In the book, it's citrus and garlic or braised fennel, and Bryant is in his kitchen in Oakland, California. Hey, Bryant.
Bryant Terry: Hey, Helen. I'm here in my backyard in Oakland, ready to cook.
Helen Rosner: I don't know, tell me what goes into this recipe? It looks like there's a couple of different parts here.
Bryant Terry: Yes, so the cornerstone of the recipe is actually the mojo, which is a kind of citrus and garlic condiment or marinade that's used in Cuban cooking, oftentimes to marinate meat. I thought that it would be fun to take fennel bulbs and give them a nice sear to give them some color and a little crisp on the outside, and then baste them in this mojo in a similar way that one might baste the turkey.
Helen Rosner: Cool. We should do that part first, right? We should make the sauce?
Bryant Terry: Yes, the sauce should be made first because you want to let it rest for an hour so that the flavors can concentrate and marry, and that's going to set you up.
Helen Rosner: I bet that really makes the garlic just get super garlicky, too. Just like a garlic explosion.
Bryant Terry: Yes, the garlic explosion.
Helen Rosner: I'm going to just start measuring out the orange juice and the lime juice and stuff while you talk to me about the recipe, okay?
Bryant Terry: Okay, cool.
Helen Rosner: You've been doing this stuff for a long time. Have you always known that you were going to be a cookbook author? How did you come to this?
Bryant Terry: I didn't. I thought I was going to be a professor. When I was a grad student at NYU, I started doing more research on the Black Panther Party and their survival programs. I think they were so cutting edge in their analysis and understanding this intersection of poverty, malnutrition, and institutional racism back in the late '60s. Their grocery giveaways and their free breakfast for children program really excited me to just do my part in creating a more healthy and sustainable food system. Do you mind if I give you some cooking tips as you're cooking?
Helen Rosner: Yes, tell me what to do.
Bryant Terry: When you're working with citrus, a lot of people don't realize that you can actually get a lot more juice from your orange, lime, lemon, if you actually take the fruit and then roll it with the palm of your hand back and forth for about 15 to 20 seconds because that starts to break down the constitution of it. It'll yield more juice.
Helen Rosner: A thing that I learned the hard way early in my cooking life is that if you're going to zest something and juice something, you always need to zest it first.
Bryant Terry: Yes, that's a great point. You definitely want to zest it first.
Helen Rosner: Bryant, while you're talking just now, I was using you're rolling out the citrus technique on some of the limes that I was about to juice. Hold on, I'm going to try this again. It was amazing. It was like Niagara Falls coming out of this lime. Yes, good crazy.
Bryant Terry: Oh, yes.
Helen Rosner: Oh, my God, you've changed the game for me. This is amazing.
Bryant Terry: It works well.
Helen Rosner: All right, let's do the fennel. We talked a little bit about fennel, but I was so struck by one of the phrases that you use to describe your approach to fennel. You talk about blackifying it and that you want to bring to food this sense of your Blackness and the Blackness of the context of your culture and use this very beautiful phrase, your blood, and spiritual ancestors, which I think is such a moving way of talking about the communities that we arise from. Has it always been a conscious choice for you to Blackify food?
Bryant Terry: I feel like more than Blackifying it, my approach has been about uplifting Black food. That started when I was in culinary school and I was just really, I won't say put off, but it was disappointing that there was such an emphasis on classical French and classical Italian techniques. One of the things I feel like I've been fighting since I started this work is pushing back against the reductive ways in which people imagine, think about, talk about Black food. I think so often when people think about Black food, what they're thinking about are two different things, and sometimes they're playing with each other.
One is Antebellum survival food. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people vilify African American cuisine and reducing it to what they call slave food. Whatever the plantation owners didn't want, the scraps, the remnants of the vegetables or the animal viscera, whatever it is, that's the stuff that was discarded and we just had to eat it and make do. Why would we want to eat that? There's that line of thinking and then the other one is people reduce African American cuisine to soul food, which in my mind, are big flavored meats and fatty desserts and overcooked vegetables that you might find at soul food restaurants.
In terms of the core, the traditional staples of African American cuisine, we're talking about things like black-eyed peas, sugar snap peas, pole beans, lima beans, dark leafy greens like collards, mustards, turnips, kale, dandelions. One of my major projects has been helping people reimagine Black food in all its diversity and complexity.
Helen Rosner: How does this connect to the fact that your recipes are vegan, and that the cooking that you're doing is plant-based? Does that come from a similar politics?
Bryant Terry: Yes, well, in terms of the way that most people imagine veganism, they're either thinking about upper-middle-class white suburbanites or young white hipsters who are living in urban centers.
Helen Rosner: Veganism is like an aesthetic rather than a politic.
Bryant Terry: It's an aesthetic. It's something that white people own. I think it's important that people understand that there's a history of Black food and health-led activism throughout the 20th century. My first contact with the idea of vegetarianism came from Black Seven Day Adventists. After I read Malcolm X and was obsessed with the nation of Islam, I learned about the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his health ministry. He wrote two books. How to Eat to Live, which was his way of helping Black folks think about eating more healthfully. I think about Dick Gregory, the comedian and social justice activist, and his emphasis on food.
The thing that politicized me was a hip-hop song about factory farming called Beef by the rapper KRS-One, from the group Boogie Down Productions.
KRS-One: Beef. What a relief. When will this poisonous product cease? This is another public service announcement. You can believe it, or you can doubt it. Let us begin now with the cow, the way it gets to your plate and how, the cow--
Bryant Terry: Black people are suffering from the highest rates of preventable diet-related illnesses. Heart disease, hypertension, type-two diabetes. I would argue that we needn't look any further than our own cultural cuisine in order to find better health.
Helen Rosner: I love that.
Bryant Terry: You have all your vinegars, your citrus in there?
Helen Rosner: Yes, all my citrus is in there. I think it's garlic time. Could I use a Microplane or grate it or something like that?
Bryant Terry: You could. I've never--
Helen Rosner: You're allowed to say no. That was a tone of voice that implied to me that you think it's a bad idea and--
Bryant Terry: No, I just hadn't thought about it, but--
Helen Rosner: We're going to let that intensify while everything else happens. I love fennel. I'm super obsessed with fennel. I don't really love black licorice. I just want to take a bite out of it. It's so good.
Bryant Terry: You know what? Let me do that, too. I don't even know if I've ever and attempted to take a full-on, this is like an apple bite.
Helen Rosner: Oh, I would eat it like an apple.
Bryant Terry: I'm going to do this in Berkeley and they're going to think I'm a god. I'm going to start me a cult. The cult of eating fennel raw.
Helen Rosner: In Vegetable Kingdom, you assign a track to each recipe. Each recipe has a song and you've got this gorgeous playlist at the beginning of the book that puts them all together. The song that goes with this recipe is Afro-Cu (Bembé) by Mongo Santamaria, from the album What do You Mean. [music]
What is it about this song that you particularly like?
Bryant Terry: [laughs] Just the African rhythms. If I close my eyes I just feel like I'm being transported back to New Orleans, to Havana, to Lagos. It's all about the African rhythms.
Helen Rosner: What kind of pan should I use for this?
Bryant Terry: You're good to go. That cast iron filet is exactly where you want to be.
Helen Rosner: I'm going to-- oh yes, you hear that sizzle?
Helen Rosner: Okay, so I formed a sauce in the skillet. I have nestled beautifully and my golden cases of fennel, and now we're going to let them braise. This is where the magic happens right? All right, let's take a bite. Oh my God.
Bryant Terry: I'm obviously over here thinking that this is the bomb, what do you think? [laughing]
Helen Rosner: The bomb. This is the bomb. This is totally the bomb. That is the technical term, I think this is.
Speaker 3: Bryant Terry's most recent book is Black Food and he spoke with The New Yorker's Helen Rosner. Now, full disclosure. We skipped a few steps as they were making that dish and I guess you may have suspected as much. If you want to try the braised fennel in citrus mojo, you can find every single one of the steps at newyorkerradio.org. Helen Rosner will be back on the show in a couple of weeks after spending some time in the kitchen with Andy Baraghani. A bon appétit.
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