At Durham’s Food World supermarket, visiting chef Tunde Wey putters around a mountain of masa sacks to get to aisle four, where a sign labeled “African” marks shelves lined with plastic bottles of alligator pepper and fermented locust beansjust what he needs. He wanders back to the produce section where Andrea Reusing, chef of The Durham Hotel and Lantern, waits by a pile of perfectly bruised plantains.
“How many do you need?” she asks. “Twenty-five fingers,” he announces and then turns away. Reusing quickly, and correctly, surmises that he means twenty-five whole plantains, each nearly triple the size of a Chiquita banana.
She squeezes to check for ripeness and bags about five at a time, tossing bundles into a cart already full of Wey’s staple ingredients. Two African yams, at least six pounds each, with skin the texture of tree bark, nestled atop two massive bags of dry black beans. Beside them is a bag of finely milled gari, another type of tuber. (Africans call it manioc; it’s commonly known as cassava.)
These ingredients are for an elaborate Nigerian feast at The Durham Hotel, based on a repertoire Wey has developed in just three years as a professional cook, assisted by regular calls to his mother back in Lagos. Wey, who is based in New Orleans, visited Durham last week as part of his Blackness in America pop-up dinner series. It was the final stop on a nine-city tour in which more than a dozen events combined dinners with charged discussions of race.
Wey’s visit had the distinct allure that all famous chefs seem to carry: chill vibes, unexplained genius, and new, exciting ideas to dazzle our palates. He may be an untrained chefhe’ll tell you he’s just a cook and that his food is “OK”‘but his story has been chronicled all over national media, from The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times to The Splendid Table. He came to Detroit from Lagos at age seventeen, propelled by his mother’s hope that he would become a doctor. He jokes that he spent a semester in fencing class instead. He realized he preferred to write and entertain.
He briefly co-owned a restaurant with friends before deciding, at age thirty, to push back against the uninteresting idea of “new American” cuisine and decide for himself, a Yoruba Nigerian, what that meant. Blackness in America started as a subtle protest, Wey says, for black people to take up space at the dinner table and have “a difficult conversation” that “doesn’t suit conventional attitudes and expectations.”
Wey came to Durham at the invitation of Reusing and Shorlette Ammons, an outreach coordinator for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) and North Carolina A&T University. Ammons, like many food types, first heard of Wey upon reading his essay in Oxford American, the magazine that called him a “provocateur.” He and venerated food writer John T. Edge published back-to-back essays centered on a dinner conversation they had with each other, copublished under the title “Who Owns Southern Food?” Wey says he didn’t really understand the racial implications of “black” until he came to America.
“Since I started the dinner series, a strange thing has started happening,” he wrote. “From white perches, my opinions are being sought. In these conversations, I felt a tipping toward me of some odd power. A tentative deference was offered in exchange for my ‘black’ experience. My words were being elicited as a means to contextualize these folks’ white privilege and powerand maybe subconsciously to defend it.”
Ammons was struck by the bold perspective of Wey’s essay. “I thought, OK, this doesn’t happen too often, where this young up-and-coming cat challenges the privilege of this well-known, well-meaning liberal white class,” she recalls, laughing. “And it was refreshing in a kind of gangsta way.”
Ammons’s own food-systems work is rooted in changing that narrative; she calls it decentering whiteness. “It’s about shifting what we value, and that comes from our shared work and shared culture,” she says. “Not necessarily the co-opted experience of culture.” Before Wey arrived in Durham, he read Ammons’s report, “Shining a Light in Dark Places: Raising Up the Work of Southern Women of Color in the Food System.” It details the drastic imbalance in the food system, where racial and gendered hierarchies exist explicitly, affecting public perception of who belongs. Through CEFS, Ammons leads racial-equity training for people interested in the food system.
Wey knows that in 2016, a black man commanding a kitchenlet alone an uncomfortable discussion in mixed companyis still a burgeoning phenomenon. Calling out white supremacy isn’t the gentlest way of dealing with racism, which is why he does it with food. But that hook is not meant to be a diversion, so he rarely goes into explaining what’s on the plate.
“When I started cooking, even apart from these dinners on race, I said I wanted to make Nigerian food commonplace without it being exploited,” Wey says. “I didn’t want to be anybody’s fantasy. My sort of reticence in speaking about the food is because there are so many opportunities when we’re talking about race for people to get distracted. Either through humor or pedantic speech. I didn’t want food to be the third thing.”
Ammons and her collaborators kept the Durham dinner invite-only. Attendees, black and white, were selected based on their work in the community and to ensure balanced access across racial and economic lines. Before the first course was plateda salad of fresh mint leaves and chewy beef trotter dusted with ground Cameroon peppermusician and historian Justin Robinson led about fifty guests in a Georgia Sea Island song: “Throw me anywhere, Lord/In that old field.”
Robinson performed in a deliberate bellowing tone, and diners clapped excitedly at his command. I wonder how many realized that “The Buzzard Lope,” as folklorist Alan Lomax documented it, refers to how enslaved people were not given proper burials, but merely cast into the field in which they had been forced to labor.
“We are creating a black space prioritizing the experiences of black folks here,” Wey said after the song, launching the discussion. “It’s going to be informal. It’s going to be impolite.”
Ammons and Wey prompted guests to think about a time when they challenged a stereotype of their identity group. The resulting discussion became convoluted and tense. Some guests spoke profound personal truths; others pushed for a chance to empathize, while struggling to grasp something Wey said: “We are led to believe that whiteness is neutral.”
In public discourse surrounding the movement for black lives, and especially since the presidential election, many communities of color are expressing the need to take a break from the emotional labor of teaching white peers about racism.
“A lot of times [at the dinners] it’s black folks emoting, sharing, teaching,” Wey reflects later. “White folks are distancing and trying to empathize in a way that doesn’t attempt to understand the daily reality of race.”
While many can agree with Wey’s idea, not everyone agrees with his approach. Robinson thinks the free-for-all discussion needed clearer guidance to reach a point of harmony.
“To me that dinner was a performance piece for white people, and I didn’t go there for that,” Robinson says. “What I wanted to happen was there to be an exchange between what he had to offer and what people in the room had to offer.”
Last Friday, at another event at The Durham Hotelthis one publicwith Wey and Ammons, many of the dinner guests returned to air out their lingering ideas and criticisms. At the dinner, Jesse Huddleston, who helps run the Durm Talks series about race and culture at Beyù Caffè, had noted that the “song of anti-racism, justice, and liberation is a challenging one. It’s a song that some people don’t want to sing.” On Friday, he added that he had been skeptical of Wey’s motivations and the implication that these conversations weren’t already happening in Durham.”I know plenty of people who are having these conversations,” Huddleston says. “So I thought, ‘Who the fuck is Tunde and why is he in Durham when we’ve been having these conversations?’”
Some African-American guests thought Wey’s identity as an African made him a safe outsidersomeone more readily accepted by a white America, especially when adding the element of food. Most of the criticisms of Wey seem to imply that he is offering up not just food, but also black identity for white consumption.
“Maybe I have played into this very insidious aspect of white supremacy,” Wey admits, “which is to consume.”
The instinct to take and consume is very Americana normalized part of this country’s history. In the context of food, the best wishes still embody the racism underlying systems designed to be exclusive. By way of example, Ammons mentions the black youth in her hometown of Goldsboro, who are up against fatal rates of diabetes, lacking access to healthy food choices. She also points to restaurant culture.
“The Durham local food movement is a gentrified version of what used to be Southern food,” says Ammons. “And that culture is now lost. It’s why we [black communities] are not involved.” Ammons wanted to bring Wey to Durham because he speaks directly to the impact that people of power, including the food elite, make with their well-meaning but often tone-deaf intentions. His intimate, confrontational work reminds us that we can change that.
“The race conversation is more public than I can ever remember in my lifetime,” Ammons says. “I feel like something is stewing.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Consuming Blackness”