Lisa Byrd

By Layne Lynch
Photography by Marc Brown 

As is typical with busy, overly scheduled people, it had been three or four years since Lisa Byrd had visited her doctor for a checkup. The former executive director of the ProArts Collective—a local nonprofit that also produces the Black Arts Movement (BAM) festival—assumed that despite occasional indulgences in sweet potato pie and fried fare, all was well with her health; no high fevers, odd chest pains or other worrisome maladies indicated otherwise.

 

The results of her delayed appointment, though, were a wake-up call. Byrd’s cholesterol and triglyceride levels were too high. “It usually takes a dramatic situation to shake me up and see the light,” she confesses. The doctor advised her to embrace the paleo diet, a nutritional plan based on eating plants and animals consumed during the Paleolithic era—before the development of modern industrial agriculture. The plan is heavy in fruits and vegetables, grassfed meats, fish, nuts and roots, but excludes grains, dairy, salt, refined sugar and processed oils. “I have to admit, I feel one hundred percent better,” she says.

A transplant from the cheesesteak capital, Byrd studied her mother’s cooking while growing up and learned to replicate quick-fix family meals such as chicken and dumplings and navy bean soup. “My mom came into adulthood in the fifties, when it was a lot of canned food and frozen dinners,” says Byrd. “It was all the promise of modern life. Funny how things have changed.”

Her maternal grandmother’s Virginia farm was a welcome juxtaposition to Philly. Byrd would work in the two-acre garden, harvesting and picking potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries and corn. For dinner, her grandmother would cook a roast or fry chicken on a worn wood-fired stove with generous portions of lima beans and fresh whole milk from the cow grazing outside. Back in the city at her paternal grandmother’s house, Byrd indulged in fish dinners followed by family bingo games. The most potent memory from those years, however, was waking to the smell of preserves wafting from the farm kitchen. “When my grandma would make grape jam, the smells would just blow you away,” she says.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Byrd progressed through the ranks of Austin’s theater, dance and cultural communities—working for places like Dance Umbrella and Ballet Austin. “Black arts and culture aren’t very accessible in Austin, and yet there’s this whole legacy of work being done here,” says Byrd. “I wanted to change that.”

She cites the addition of “culinary performances” to the BAM festival as one of her career highlights at ProArts Collective. Such performances that spotlight and celebrate underrepresented black chefs and culinary stars provoked discussions of modern cuisine and its role in the black community. She was fiercely passionate about the addition of culinary topics—hoping it would address issues such as the accessibility to fresh, homegrown produce in East Austin and the historical roots of soul food.

Byrd recently left ProArts with a plan to embark on a new, yet-to-be-determined chapter in her life. However, she plans to continue her mission of developing East Austin’s access to farm-fresh food. “I’m leaving at the right time,” she says of the decision.

Her newly invigorated passion for cuisine lends itself well to her eclectic East Austin kitchen decorated with colorful vases, weighty glass jars, delicate floral dishes and hand-painted tiles. With her son, Langston—named after poet Langston Hughes—by her side, Byrd loves to prepare her favorite paleo dish, vegetable-coconut stew, made with cauliflower instead of rice. It took a while for Langston to get used to Mom’s new diet, she notes, but he is quickly learning—like his mother—that change is life’s only constant.

“I now see cooking as this finite thing and, at the end of it, you taste it, feel it, look at it and realize you’ve created something,” says Byrd. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I’m excited by that.”



Vegetable-Coconut Stew

Courtesy of Mark Sisson and chef, food writer and photographer Jennifer Meier. Mark Sisson is recognized as a leading authority on low-carb and evolution-based health, fitness and nutrition.This recipe and many more can be found in the Primal Blueprint Quick and Easy Meals Cookbook at primalblueprint.com.

1 large shallot, roughly chopped
1 c. shredded unsweetened coconut
2 garlic cloves
1 jalapeño, seeded and cut in half
2 T. coconut oil
1 large cucumber or several small, peeled, seeded and sliced
1 small head of cauliflower, broken into florets
1 carrot, peeled and cut into rounds
2 c. green beans
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 t. turmeric
½ t. cumin
1 13½-oz. can coconut milk (about 1½ c.)

In a food processor, process the shallot, shredded coconut, garlic and jalapeño for about 1 minute, until very fine. In a deep saucepan, warm the coconut oil and add the shallot mixture. Sauté several minutes. Add the cucumber, cauliflower, carrot, green beans, tomatoes, turmeric and cumin. Sauté 1 to 2 minutes, then add the coconut milk and bring to a rapid simmer. Cover and cook 8 to 10 minutes, until the vegetables are cooked but still crisp.