The Legacy of a Civil Rights Icon’s Vegetarian Cookbook
Adrian Miller, the author of Black Smoke: African American and the United States by Barbecue, recalls how holidays like Juneteenth always meant celebrating with food for his family. “We went to the public festivities in the Five Points neighborhood, Denver’s historic Black neighborhood. At these events the food celebrated was grilled, usually pork ribs, huge smoked turkey legs, watermelon and red drinks. “
For many black Americans, barbecue and soul food mean victory. Cooking techniques passed down through the generations testify to the strength and persistence of black culture and cuisine. But with the celebration comes the consideration of the health effects of meat, sugar, and fat. Parallel to the narrative of soul food, there is another story that links nutrition with liberation, and one that features an unusual hero: a prominent black comedian whose 1974 book full of plant-based recipes influences the diet of blacks to this day.
My darling copy of the book.
I grew up on Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet for Folks Who Eat: Cookin ‘With Mother Nature in my Memphis home. I even took it with me for my first semester at Tennessee State University. The campus was surrounded by fast food and soul food restaurants, and I used Gregory’s book many times for nutritional advice. I also made recipes from his site, such as the “Nutcracker Sweet”, a fruit smoothie made from a mixture known today as almond milk. Today, many years later, I live in Brooklyn and still consult the book. The same copy that I saw for the first time on my mother’s bookshelf – the lid of which shows Gregor’s head with a huge chef’s hat with fruit and vegetables – now stands alone.
Now considered one of the greatest stand-up comedians in history, Dick Gregory was shot up after appearing on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar in 1961, a segment that almost didn’t happen. Gregory initially turned down the opportunity because the show allowed black entertainers to perform but not sit on Parr’s couch for interviews. After his refusal, Parr called Gregory personally to invite him for an interview on the Tonight Show’s couch. His performance was groundbreaking: “It was the first time that white America got to hear a black person not as an actor, but as a person,” Gregory said later in an interview.
Gregory was particularly adept at using humor to present the black experience at a time of heightened tension and divisions in the United States. During a performance early in his career, he quipped, “Segregation isn’t all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision in which people were injured in the back of the bus? “
Gregory speaking to a crowd in Washington DC in 1963.
“He had the ability to make us laugh when we probably had to cry,” said US representative and civil rights activist John Lewis in an interview after Gregory’s death in 2017. “He had the ability to answer the whole question of race, Racial segregation, and just racial discrimination where people can come together and deal with it and not try to hide it under the American rug. “
But Gregory didn’t just fight racial inequality in comedy clubs. He also used his voice to campaign for civil rights at protests and rallies. After Gregory held a rally with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had directed, he developed a relationship with King. (Gregory’s close ties to leaders like King and Mississippi activist Medgar Evers eventually led him to become a target of FBI surveillance.) He helped locate the missing civil rights activists who died during the intense fighting from the Ku Klux Klan killed in Mississippi “Freedom Summer” from 1964 and appeared at a rally on the last night of the 1965 March from Selma to Montgomery.
For Gregory, who became a vegetarian in 1965, food and nutrition were inseparable from civil rights. “The philosophy of nonviolence that I developed during my involvement in the civil rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. learned, was initially responsible for changing my diet, ”he writes in his book. “I had the feeling that the commandment ‘You shall not kill’ applied to people not only in their dealings with one another – war, lynching, assassination, murder and the like – but also in their practice of using animals for food or sport kill.”
Gregory with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. after the comedian won the 1963 Southern Christian Leadership Conference Merit Award.
In Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet, he combines black liberation with health, nutrition and basic human rights. Gregory knew all too well the socio-economic barriers to healthy eating: growing up poor in St. Louis, he had limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables. In his book, he states that readers may not always have the best resources, but the best information. Each chapter serves as both a hunt group and a manual, and offers everything from basics about the human body to lists of foods that are good sources of certain vitamins and minerals.
Thanks to Gregory’s longstanding collaboration with nutritionist Dr. Alvenia Fulton offers the book healthy recipes as well as natural remedies for common ailments. The “Mother Nature Medicare” chapter contains recipes for everything from party food (“pee”) to headache cures (a mixture of tomato, celery and onion juice). For those looking to gain weight or lose weight, the Dick Gregorys Weight-On / Weight-Off Natural Diet chapter includes dairy-free milk recipes and weekly meal plans.
Gregory’s culinary contributions are not just a footnote to his already eventful life, but have made up a large part of his legacy. Cliff Notez, a musician and multimedia artist from Boston, has been vegan for four years and represents much of Dick Gregory’s philosophy. “I think he’s definitely one of the few black intellectual writers who is frank [spoke] about veganism, vegetarianism, ”says Notez.
Gregory with Dr. Alvenia Fulton, one of his nutritionists.
Although a lot has changed since 1974, there are still barriers to a healthy, plant-based lifestyle. As Notez points out, “inner city communities can make it harder to become vegan” due to persistent food deserts. Meeting these challenges is a new generation of black culinary leaders who carry on Gregory’s legacy of empowerment through education. As the head chef at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco, Bryant Terry directs programs that focus on the intersection of food, poverty and activism. A celebrated chef who has published several vegan cookbooks, Terry also cites Gregory as a strong influence. In an interview with the AARP, he described Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet as “one of those groundbreaking texts that influenced me to think more about these issues and to invest in my personal health and wellbeing.”
Eating has always meant more than just health. “Food plays a very important role,” says Adrian Miller. “Eating food is something we all have in common that helps create a welcoming space where people can come together and have difficult conversations.” Dick Gregory knew that food had the power to fuel change. In his book Dick Gregory’s Political Primer, he writes: “I have personally seen in recent years how purity of diet and thought are interrelated. And if Americans really care about the purity of the food that gets into their personal system when they learn to eat right, we can expect profound changes in this nation’s social and political system. The two systems are inseparable. “
Dick Gregory died in August 2017, but amateur chefs can still celebrate his legacy by preparing one of the recipes from his book. Here are two of my favorites.
Nature’s champagne is just as elegant as real champagne.
Adapted from Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet: Cookin ‘With Mother Nature
Makes 1 liter
3 cups of pineapple juice
1 cup of cucumber juice (see instructions for making cucumber juice here)
1 teaspoon agave syrup (simple syrup can be substituted here)
1 teaspoon of orange juice
Put juices and syrup in a shaker with ice. Shake the mixture, then strain the liquid into a glass over crushed or pelleted ice. Stock up on ginger beer for a tangy alternative to champagne or alcoholic beverages.
Gregory’s recipe “Always in the Soup” is refreshing and hearty.
Dick Gregory’s Always in the Soup Health Power Uplift
Adapted from Dick Gregory’s Natural Diet: Cookin ‘With Mother Nature
2 medium-sized tomatoes, sliced
1 cucumber, sliced
1 medium-sized pumpkin, diced (e.g. kabocha, honey nut, butternut), without seeds
1 bunch of kale (spinach can be substituted)
1 bell pepper, diced (yellow or orange)
1 avocado, sliced
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic (you can cut whole or thinly)
1-2 cups of filtered water (add one and then see how watery your soup is after mixing)
2 tablespoons of honey
Mix the ingredients thoroughly in a blender or food processor. It can be served cold or warm.
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