Tunde Wey, 32, is a chef, writer, and Nigerian immigrant. “I’m ‘black’ because I live in America,” he says, “yet by virtue of my upbringing I’m steeped in a different and privileged emotional experience.” He is currently hosting a traveling dinner series, “Blackness in America,” serving Nigerian food. It made a sold-out appearance last week at the Dudley Cafe with actress Obehi Janice. Here, he reflects on the project, its provenance, and its Boston stop.
I am a traveling cook. I began my itinerant cooking career in the fall of 2014, leaving a restaurant I had helped start in the Detroit area in part because I was unimpressed with contemporary food culture. Each week our restaurant hosted a different chef, and they turned out precious (and delicious) tasting menus, the food arranged with surgical precision on trendy plates.
Fed up, in a manner of speaking, I wanted to show Americans what “real food” was and the proper way to enjoy — just eat it!
With little expertise but the experience my mouth holds from eating Nigerian food all my life, I decided to cook. “Nigerian food” is a catch-all phrase for the wild menagerie of dishes flung together, and forced to coexist, sometimes in admiration and other times in jealousy, by the imperialist whims of Great Britain.
I was soon struck by the physicality of cooking. It became my practice, bringing stillness to my monkey mind and reacquainting me with my heritage. To hold my back straight and work in a hot kitchen: peel off with my fingernails the stubborn parchments of skin from sweet white onions and then chop them slowly; tear apart fibrous red bell peppers, their little pepper seeds popping into the air and littering the shiny kitchen sink; lob the hard tops off soft red tomatoes, watch their insides peek out; cook thick, bubbling, colorful “African” stews that flicker from red to yellow-hued; bear witness to the flames from the burner that heat and lick the bottom of the pot’s cast-iron feet; massage meats with Jamaican curry, fresh rosemary, dry ginger spices . . . all the while listening to Nigerian rap and taking stout sips of whiskey. This was my heaven.
When my food was served at the table, my joy became transformed into a self-righteous fury. I worked hard to strike fierce blows of unrepentantly fiery flavor and thrills, unlike what most bland modern American mouths had known. I ripped away false references to my food, refusing to provide my patrons an easily digestible context: I was unwilling to erase my culture so another could be comfortable. I did not allow garri — dried processed cassava — to be called “grits,” or egusi — a ground melon-seed stew — to be tamed by similar colonized references.
I did this because my Nigerian sensibilities were insulted by contemporary food culture, with its neurotic (and pathological) preoccupation with the plate: the provenance of the ingredients, their arrangement on the plate, the bona fides of the chef, to the exclusion of everything else.
Then I realized I was striking blows at shadows, focusing on the symptom and not the illness.
Contemporary food culture wasn’t the problem.
Sure, I quarreled with Instagram-addled cellphones, overtaking actual eating as the primary mode of consumption, and verbose tableside ruminations about the virtues of fresh pea shoots and other such tendril things.
But all these were esoteric concerns, a distraction from the real business. Food culture existed within a larger cultural context that I was ignoring.
The issue wasn’t that we had distorted the experience of preparing and eating food, but what that distortion allowed us to distract ourselves from: critical examination, of ourselves and what is on our plates.
I examined myself, and now I cook differently.
Now I cook to talk about some of the things we don’t want to acknowledge. Blackness for example. Womanhood as a second example. Racism, xenophobia, capitalism, sexuality. . .
I cook to talk about the undocumented farmer’s life. How much she earns and why she lives with a permanent crick in her neck from craning over her shoulder in fear.
I cook to acknowledge that I am an instrument of patriarchy, while also struggling with accepting that.
I cook to remember, and remind, that black/brown chefs are given less consideration than their white counterparts because in the broader society black/brown lives are not regarded as equal to white lives. To limn the racialized hierarchies in our finer dining restaurants, garlanded by their ornamental overhead lighting illuminating overpriced menus. Where black and brown folks are busy with bussing, prepping, and cleaning — generally out of sight — while their white colleagues serve as the establishments’ more genial faces, enjoying the attendant material benefits.
In Boston, in a room of 40 or so, the diners were mostly women of color, men held the minority, and there might have been two white men. An inverse pyramid of privilege in America. I especially appreciated the two friends who sat next to each other. A black woman with dreadlocks and black liturgical vestments, and the other a minister as well, a white woman with short cropped hair and contrasting red cassock. Episcopalian clergy, in the mix of bread, wine, and race.
I checked my phone, a nervous habit. No new text messages, one new e-mail. I opened it. Blank subject with a two-word body: “racist much?” The biggest critique of my dinners from white folk is that creating black spaces is “racist,” and also an instance of playing the “victim card.” This is disingenuous. It conflates black affirmation with discrimination, and denies the implicit politics of other spaces that are populated by white folk but present themselves as neutral. Even with white folks in the minority, this dinner at the Dudley Cafe — and all my previous dinners — was black-affirming and not white-hating.
There are not a few restaurants in the Boston area where the patrons are almost always exclusively white. Everyone is welcome to dine at such restaurants, but race, culture, location, economics often make it otherwise. The collusion of these factors reveals the politics of such places. Nobody judges them as nefarious, and no one should. But let us not mistake this for neutrality.
French (and white male, lest we be accused of limited imagination *insert smiley face*) architect-cum-intellectual Leopold Lambert says it best: “Nothing of what we design is politically innocent.”
Let’s stop pretending, no?
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Tunde Wey can be reached at email@example.com.