FOOD IS ABOUT CONSUMPTION, ENGORGING BELLIES, AND DESTROYING AUTHORITARIAN POWER
|| a conversation with Tunde Wey
by francesca ekwuyasi
Tunde Wey is brilliant and provocative.
He must be provocative to execute a social experiment in the shape of a lunch counter that serves the same portion size of Nigerian food at two distinct prices; $12 for people of color, and $30 for white people. This lunch counter is part of his ingenious pop up dinner series that pair simple Nigerian cuisine with uncomfortable and necessary conversations about power inequities, injustices, exploitation, racism, sexism, police brutality, and classism in the United States. This particular pop-up is titled Saartj — after black South African Saartjie Baartman nicknamed ‘the Hottentot Venus’ in Europe where she was put on display as a freak attraction in the early 1800s. Saartj had its first opening this February in New Orleans and will open again in Detroit; on the registration page for the Detroit pop up you are welcomed with a brief description of what to expect:
“We are opening a week-long restaurant in Detroit. It offers concierge service: the cost, menu and experience are tailored to your privilege.”
At the lunch counter in New Orleans white customers were presented with a choice to pay the standard price of $12, which was available to everyone, or the suggested price of $30. These prices were not arbitrary, but based on the racial wealth disparity in New Orleans, and the net profits earned from sales at the suggested price was redistributed to customers of color.
Tunde has hosted these travelling dinners series since 2016, covering themes like anti-immigration rhetoric, blackness in the United States, wealth disparity, and segregation; and they come complete with a reading guide of critical text and a simple yet gorgeous menu of Nigerian delicacies that are sure to stoke a longing in those of us who live away from home.
In this interview we discuss food as a weapon, writing, nostalgia, and childhood memories.
This form of activism, using food as a way to engage in often difficult conversation about race, justice, and power in the United States, is radical and necessary. What is the origin story? And how does your Nigerian-ness influence this work?
the origin story... my birth i guess. fela kuti did something amazing with music -- he reimagined the mechanics of music, fusing different styles and perspectives to create a new form. more importantly, he defined quintessentially what protest music is -- "music cannot be for enjoyment" he said. obviously fela was avowedly libertine and his music was famously lustful but in an expanded sense, in a way as to reject authoritarian control. music was a weapon for fela. in my food work i see the same thing, food is about consumption, engorging bellies and it is also about destroying authoritarian power. protest food is a weak descriptor but an okay one for now-- if my identity is simply my politicized african body then i am at risk, as african bodies are seemingly imminently disposable, and i have to speak. food is the weapon.
Appropriateness, comfort, and politeness seem like notions that come secondary (if at all) when you encourage people to have conversations about inherently uncomfortable conversations like racism, queerness, black experiences, racialized poverty, etc. What are the most unexpected conversations that have come up during your dinners?
the truth is the most unexpected but least surprising conversation that usually happens at the dinners. white folks acknowledge privilege and enunciate the difficulty in giving it up. the acknowledgement happens tacitly and implicitly, and so does the step away from relinquishing it.
About Nigerian food and identity: early this month, you posted a gorgeously written statement on diasporic angst. It read, to me, as a longing for home coloured heavy with nostalgia, yet grounded in the understanding that the nostalgic is often more forgiving than the real "...because the sand from this place which exists in memory and real time is stuck in our eye. It's why we cook - we all cook: stew, rice, dodo. Even meat pie, puff puff, efo. of course jollof, fried rice. But we're also afraid of... Nigeria. scared of going back to the sand that is not allegorical" Can you please share more about this?
this bit of writing is slightly embarrassing. i write poetry sometimes, words buried behind a complex of coded symbols, to obfuscate in plain sight feelings that are powerful, objectionable but also revealing. i am not always comfortable being vulnerable and that bit of writing was vulnerable. i haven't been home in 18 years, i miss it terribly. i don't even know what it means to miss a thing because it requires being vulnerable which i have little practice is. however i know i miss it terribly, i just don't know how to feel this loss except by self withdrawal and self sabotage. bleak i know.
Do you have a remedy for homesickness?
i don't have a recipe for homesickness except go home. i have many recipes for torturing oneself with thoughts of home and for imploring nostalgia-- the benefits are real and temporary, only serving to reignite the feeling of longing more ferociously. returning is the cure.
It seems to me that you're occupying (and rightfully so) space in the US culinary scene that has typically been very white; and you're taking it to a unique level of provocation. What backlash have you experienced? And can you please share your experiences working on this in general?
i never thought about the space i occupy as typically white, but i guess you're right, maybe. i haven't really received much backlash except from internet trolls, and some vigorous debate with friends. the more pertinent consideration is the emotional exertion expended in my work; writing, cooking, discussing these issues are personally taxing. my work turns my mind into one of those automatic plug in air fresheners that spritz condensed aroma into the ether, different conflicting feelings of success, failure, depression and elation are emitted from my spirit in arithmetic intervals throughout the duration of the work. it's annoying. i wish i was perpetually sure and consistently disregarding of any other feelings but my virtuousness but alas this isn't anywhere near the case.
Your brilliant piece in Citylab, The Whitewashing of Detroit's Culinary Scene, speaks to this pervasive whiteness specific to the city of Detroit. In this piece your voice is sharp, you wrote "It was a beautiful time, a beautiful place—but only if you were white and college-educated, or simply white, or just proximate to the right white people, some of whom were turning tragedy into restaurants." The candor, intensity, and hope is palpable. Can you talk about writing? How it came to you and what it means?
i have been writing since i was younger-- writing notes to my mother when i was on vacation away at my aunt's begging her to come back and retrieve me because there weren't any sausages and bacon served for breakfast, just moi moi and ogi. i was in love with this young lady when i was seventeen and i wrote a poem for her and i didn't stop writing poems afterwards. that's how writing came to me truly, from writing poems. i wrote multiple poems a day for more than a decade-- i was living the gladwellian 10,000 hours principle without even realizing. writing poetry is amazing all the time. writing prose is amazing when it's over and when it's going well. it's a dose of endorphins without the physicality. also, thank you for the compliment.
I love that there is an assigned reading list for your dinner guests; can you talk about that choice? Also, what are you currently reading?
i try to swim 6 days a week. i heard a lady say about herself "i know how to swim but i can't tread water." i have adopted this response. it's a perfect description of my current swimming life, and much more descriptive than my usual response ("i'm not a strong swimmer") to the question of whether i can swim.
i am not a strong reader, better yet, i read everyday but not with any intentionality or with the sort of cohesiveness and structure books provide. i am currently not reading all the books on my night stool. i am currently reading a lot of soccer news from espn.com-- it's really the most fabulous writing. i am also reading copious amounts of hip hop gossip sites-- it's fun. for my work, and life, because the two are one, i read mostly academic papers, and articles, which is sometimes difficult and dense and reinforces the pleasure i find in my other readings (sports and hip hop).
as far as the required reading for my dinner series, it's important because it allows everybody to be grounded in the same reality, then we can disagree based on mutually agreed upon principles.
Your most recent project Saarjt is tackling the theme of wealth inequity. The reading guide is incredible, it includes themes that cover crucial aspects of wealth disparity, and the menu makes me want to cry. What is your creative process for each dinner project? How do these pieces come together?
i move intuitively. i move iteratively. i try to give myself a runway so i can keep evolving right up until the start of the project, and even then continue to evolve through it. i usually start by designing the collateral material, digital flyer, information packet, website, etc. this process is also iterative and fast paced-- moving with the spirit if you will. then i begin sharing the idea with many people, turning it over in conversation until some appointed time when the confidence in it's maturity arrives. then i push go.
As someone who has (unfortunately) never attended one of your dinners, I'm dying to know what the energy is like. Do you create dishes that complement the themes of evening? What music plays, and is the music selection in dialogue with the topics of discussion? What is the demographic of people that turn up?
the dinners are freewheeling just like me. i am a fan of structurelessness and i have been warned about it but i can't help myself it seems.
i prefer to create a loose, framework and then improvise in the space. i am not a strong scripted performer, maybe because i have a stutter which is more pronounced when i have to deliver prepared remarks. whatever it is i prefer a free jazz model, interacting with the space, diners and my apprehension of the moment.
the dishes, music and dialogue are not usually in dialogue. they are dissonant pieces given their own individual consideration. eventually they conspire to create an evening that is usually engaging in some way or other, pleasant or provocative or even disappointing.
I imagine that the experiences differ greatly with each new city or community to which bring your dinner project, can you talk about that? Can you imagine doing this in Lagos; how do you see that playing out?
this is a very interesting question. a good friend of mine said i should do a dinner in lagos, and i balked because cooking nigerian food for nigerians seems redundant especially if the event is premised on being unique. however she told me that combination of food and discussion is what makes my events special and why it is especially relevant in nigeria. i can't imagine what it would be like in lagos but i want to find out.
What future do you want for your dinners?
that they continue.
Tell me about your most pungent memory of food from childhood?
i am thinking...
i don't remember any, i only recollect in current moments through innocuous experiences what i know must be memories because they feel familiar. for example i am currently serving party jollof rice with pureed golden beets in coconut milk, served with sweet pickled cabbage. i had a bite and immediately the taste dropped me into the middle of a party in lagos, and i swore i was eating jollof rice with salad dressed heinz salad dressing. i was sure i was there but i wasn't. i was in new orleans.
I must ask, how does the current political atmosphere in the United States influence the topics of discussion at the dinners?
i am an artist responding to his time, everything from the personal to the political influences my work.
You can keep up with Tunde and find more information about Saartj as well as other upcoming pop up dinners at fromlagos.com.
Photo credit: Moyo Oyelola