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Local Heroes

Since I’ve been writing fiction about people who get what they want and then have to live with the consequences (including people who take the risk of meeting their heroes), I’ve taken the excuse to meet some of my own heroes. The event, "Food, Justice, & Sustainability w/author/activist/chef Bryant Terry," held in the warm, dark, intimate New Parish music venue in Oakland, combined a high-powered panel discussion with music – LPs chosen and played by Terry all through the event – and huge plates of delicious Cameroonian plaintains, stews, and rice from A Taste of Africa. From the event description: “ In recent years, Oakland, CA has emerged as one of the centers of the 'food justice' movement, a grassroots effort to increase health in urban communities through sustainable, community gardens and independent grocery stores which stock locally-grown produce."

The panelists were younger and more brilliantly alive than I’d expected – I’d made the mistake of thinking that the makers of such significant work would be older, statelier, weighed down by their topics. Nearly 15% of U.S. households are “food insecure” during at least part of the year, according to the not-particularly-radical USDA. Just about a billion people worldwide live in a state of chronic, incapacitating hunger. Writing about activists – and thinking of some of those I’ve known – I wonder, if people think about this stuff all day long, how do they keep from getting a little crabby and righteous?

So it was moving and exhilarating to see Nikki Henderson, executive director of People’s Grocery, and one of the best panel moderators I’ve ever seen, with her delighted pride in their successful community programs, like Growing Justice Institute or their community classes in health and nutrition.

A former climate activist, she’s now something of a rock star in the food justice movement, more eloquent than most rock stars. She once said, to Temra Costa of Civil Eats, “Any woman connected to her cultural heritage (no matter what color you are, because we all came from deep-rooted cultures a few generations back) knows that women are the carriers of life, love, and the soul of community. One of the many ways that we pass this along to future generations is through food. The grandmothers cook with the daughters who in turn cook with the granddaughters, and the stories in our food keep our communities rich and vibrant. Women, remember your heritage, remember the grandmothers. They still speak to us, and we must listen so we can heal the way food and farming work in our communities.”

Then there was Brahm Ahmadi (co-founder of People's Grocery, and now CEO of People’s Community Market), who talked with tremendous honesty about his efforts to raise money from big donors for his new venture to bring fresh, good food to West Oakland. And Amie Breeze Harper, editor of Sistah Vegan! Food, Health, Identity, and Society: Female Vegans of the African Diaspora. Academic, activist, and new mother, she breastfed her baby on stage, the most beautifully tangible embodiment all evening of the primal nature of food, and at one point spoke vehemently about those who seem to care only about the animals and not about the human costs of agriculture, only about whether their chocolate is vegan, not whether it comes from child slave labor. (See John Robbins, “Is there Slavery in Your Chocolate”?)

Raj Patel, the author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System, journalist and activist, spoke passionately about La Via Campesina, the international peasant movement (which, from their own statement “brings together millions of peasants, small and medium-size farmers, landless people, women farmers, indigenous people, migrants and agricultural workers from around the world…It defends small-scale sustainable agriculture as a way to promote social justice and dignity…it comprises 150 local and national organizations in 70 countries from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.”) Though Patel has had to deny on the Colbert Report that he’s the Second Coming of the Messiah, Maitreya, he’s still fairly young (he was born in 1972), so maybe his exuberant energy shouldn’t be quite as surprising as it is in person. One of my favorite lines from his bio: “He has degrees from the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics and Cornell University, has worked for the World Bank and WTO, and protested against them around the world.”

And Bryant Terry – though this Top Ten Social evening was a book release event for The Inspired Vegan and was meant to be his evening – had a preternatural modesty. He’s known for his gorgeous meals, for his earlier books, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen (co-authored with Anna Lappé) and Vegan Soul Kitchen, for traveling the country to promote healthy and sustainable food, and for speaking everywhere -- farmer’s markets, churches, clubs, and universities. He’s appeared on multiple radio and TV shows, including on Martha Stewart, and even hosted his own 13-episode series on the PBS show, The Endless Feast.

But at this event he stood behind the panel in the half shadows, playing the records he salutes in his book, only occasionally coming out to read one of the book’s histories (The Inspired Vegan combines cooking, music, and memories – both political and personal). After the panel was over, he didn’t go to the book table, but stayed at his turntable, apparently surprised when interrupted, though he politely gave a signature or two. His face and body said, This isn’t about me.

And his new book isn’t just cooking basics, or savory grits with sautéed broad beans, roasted fennel and thyme, or strawberry-basil agua fresco, or Funmilayo fritters with harissa, or ginger molasses cake with molasses-coated walnuts (though wouldn’t that be enough?) – it’s “seasonal meals…inspired by family memories, social movements, personal recollections, geographic locations, unsung radical heroes, and visions for the future.” It’s a grateful tribute to his own heroes and heroines, each menu accompanied by a remarkable story. In literary fiction, when characters meet their heroes, it’s almost a requirement that they be disappointed. A challenge then, to make a workable narrative out of what’s so often the case (and was at the evening at the New Parish): when we meet our heroes/heroines in real life, they can be even more remarkable than we had thought to imagine.

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Meeting Our Heroes

Terrific post, Sarah. I love my copy of Grub - the whole-food, whole atmosphere of it. Anna Lappé and Bryant Terry are so inspiring, food-and otherwise.  Thanks for this moutwatering tribute to the vegan diaspora!