The Question of Dinner

By  |  March 13, 2018
Untitled (1998, with 2007 additions), by Kerry James Marshall. Untitled (1998, with 2007 additions), by Kerry James Marshall.

“I do this to investigate complicity and interrogate white supremacy,” Tunde Wey said on a Monday night in October, standing on a chair before a dinner crowd of fifty-plus at Second Line, a midtown Memphis po-boy shop decorated with pictures of New Orleans brass bands. He emigrated from Nigeria to the U.S. on a visitor visa, which he later adjusted to student status. Now thirty-four, Tunde talks openly of his current undocumented status and broadcasts a keen command of structural racism theory. When he speaks, he smiles big and bright, unencumbered by irony or guile. 

Earlier that afternoon, Tunde and Kelly English, the white proprietor of Second Line, hosted three intimate lunch salons in which groups of four discussed assigned texts and passed platters of bean cakes. “The work of decolonizing begins with reading,” Tunde told one group, his words lush with the sort of earnest intent that might sink most souls. 

For this edition of his Blackness in America dinner series, Tunde spoke of his father and sang a song he learned from his mother. Zandria F. Robinson, who contributes to this magazine, stood to talk about how Jay-Z’s new album was an apology to Beyoncé that could also be heard as a commentary on casual racism. As she spoke, the crowd leaned in. They were eighty percent black and one hundred percent attuned. 

Zandria led the group in song. “I’ll stay on the battlefield, until I die,” she sang, laying down a gospel chord that connected Jim Crow struggles to Black Lives Matter resistance. She delivered her message with gravitas. She also laughed mischievously and infectiously and often. When talk turned to how the patriarchy threatens people of color and white women, too, she suggested a few books, including My Mama’s Dead Squirrel: Lesbian Essays on Southern Culture. 

I spoke to the crowd briefly about the imprint of white supremacy on Southern food, but I mostly listened, aware of how few times I have been a minority in a space where black ideas dominated. Between bites of berry compote, Zandria talked about the perils of dining out. “I get takeout all the time,” she said. “Because I want one more space in my life where I don’t feel discomfort.” Among other insults, she talked about the way white heads swivel when blacks enter many Memphis restaurants and the way white diners drop their voices two registers when they talk about blacks. As she spoke, black heads nodded in agreement. 

That night in Memphis, we all agreed to welcome the discomfort Tunde anticipated in 2016 when he published a cri de coeur, “Dining in the Era of Kaepernick,” in Civil Eats. He wrote then, “The time of dining as escape is over; the notion of food as art is finished; the era of dining as protest is now.” At Second Line, that discomfort settled over the restaurant like a fog bank, leaving whites unsure of their bearings and blacks sure, this time, they were on the right path. 

 

Restauants first emerged in Paris around two hundred and fifty years ago. Conceived as urban spas, they promised regeneration. “I will restore you,” read a sign of the day. Before restaurants were places to eat food, a restaurant was something to eat. Specifically, restaurants were restorative bouillons. By the 1790s, those bouillons and those places were interchangeably known as “restaurants.” 

Across Europe, cafés centered on coffee and conversation had been around since the seventeenth century. Older still were taverns, offering set meals at predetermined times. Conversely, restaurants were new, modern spaces, designed to satisfy individual needs. Hung with oversized mirrors, defined by private dining rooms known as cabinets particuliers, they delivered pleasures on demand. American entrepreneurs quickly adopted the European form. 

When Julien’s Restorator, the first American restaurant, opened in Boston in 1793, the proprietor promised indulgence. During the nineteenth century, American restaurants fed and comforted the aspirational classes. As America grew up, so did restaurants, spreading from east to west and north to south. Audiences broadened to include working-class men and women who began to dine away from home. For good and ill, American restaurateurs showcased American culture. 

Today, vanguard restaurants are sometimes public sites for examinations of racism, gender inequity, and class discrimination. Facing down punitive immigration policies, a sanctuary restaurant movement has emerged. In the hands of a new generation, restaurants and quasi-restaurants like the pop-up Tunde and Kelly engineered can be lyceums where social and political changes gestate. 

For an institution defined by tight credit, low margins, constricted labor markets, and high failure rates, those burdens are heavy to bear. For a young man like Tunde, whose lack of capital drove his choice to work the pop-up circuit instead of building a brick-and-mortar, pop-ups efforts are all he has. 

 

Tunde began staging Blackness in America dinners in March of 2016—first in New Orleans, where he still lives, later in the homes and restaurants of friends and colleagues in New York City, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. Now in Memphis. At each stop, Tunde has curated de facto graduate seminars on racism and its impacts, abetted by Nigerian foods. 

His approach is singular, but Tunde is not alone in this work. In 2010, a professor at Carnegie Mellon and an artist in Pittsburgh collaborated to open Conflict Kitchen. Serving dishes from countries with which the U.S. has been in conflict, and focused on bridging gaps of understanding, they went through one Afghan rotation and two Palestinian rotations before shuttering the restaurant side of the effort in 2017. (Educational initiatives will continue.) Some approaches are more playful. Since 2015, Bobby Heugel, proprietor of the bar Anvil in Houston, has staged a Columbus Day critique of colonialism, “Christopher Columbus Was an Asshole,” presented as a menu of drinks. 

By the time Tunde began his dinner series, he had opened two restaurants. The first, called (revolver), located in gentrifying Detroit, delivered everything that the lowercase font and parenthetical frame promised, including a revolving cadre of chefs and a love-in-the-ruins sheen. At Lagos, a food stall at the St. Roch Market in New Orleans, Tunde pivoted to concentrate on the foods his mother cooked back home: jollof rice, black beans with coconut, and dusky okra stew. “Right and authentic was my only concern,” he told Kelly before dinner in Memphis, as they tested plantain gnocchi. “Then I closed my shop.” 

Early in this dinner series run, Tunde and I ate together in New Orleans. Fueled by whiskey and a discussion about white privilege and white power in which I copped to benefiting from both, he asked me what I was willing to give up. Forfeiting half of my column and half of my pay seemed at once bold and safe. In June of 2016, this magazine published our call-and-response, “Who Owns Southern Food?” 

More recently, Tunde has charmed a broad audience. In March of 2017, the San Francisco Chronicle published his first column in a series. The Atlantic reached out to get his take on the inequities of Detroit’s economic recovery and soon commissioned an article. Agents promised book contracts, whispered of sneaker endorsements, and hinted at television residuals. Dinners like the one in Memphis, however, have remained his primary outreach and source of income. 

Eight years back, I attended a Federation of Southern Cooperatives conference in Epes, Alabama. Socialists wearing short-sleeve dress shirts and black clip-ons gathered that day behind folding tables outside the meeting hall. They talked to brogan-shod black farmers about the role of land in the coming revolution. They sold perfect-bound books and mimeographed pamphlets about worker rights and the promise of collectivism. 

Until I joined Tunde for his Memphis dinner, that Alabama Black Belt encounter was the most sincere and awkward and earnest moment I had ever reported. “We are here to talk about racism and about blackness in America,” Tunde said that night, almost pleading diners to adopt his stance. “There is no other reason.” 

 

“DISHES CONTAIN SEAFOOD. IF YOU’RE ALLERGIC, PLEASE CANCEL YOUR RESERVATION.” When he emailed menus and reading selections before the Memphis dinner, Tunde made his control clear. He suffers no fools. And he brooks no subversions. He told Memphis diners they would sit next to people they don’t know. And he warned, “Please don’t fight my authority or you’ll be suitably destroyed by my minions.” There was humor in his words and seriousness in his purpose. “When tensions are super high,” he promised, “we’ll eat.” 

Soon after Zandria sang, food rolled out of the kitchen. First, a bisque made with pureed African honey beans. Tunde, who still calls home for recipes, had wanted to use locust beans. That’s what his mother cooks with back in Lagos. But the West African grocery near Graceland only stocked honey beans. More beans followed. A bean salad with fermented cod, cured egg, roasted tomato, and mint. And another version of those dense bean cakes. Then roasted catfish with green plantain gnocchi. 

“What will you give up?” Tunde asked the assembly. “What do we need to do to get where we’re going?” A white diner in the back corner spoke. “The first thing white people need to do is give up comfort,” she said with the surety of a star pupil. The audience murmured assent. Tunde shot back, “What’s the second step?” The point, he made clear, was to shun the hubris of quick solutions to five-hundred-year-old problems and, instead, wallow in the mire. 

Rejection of ease defines his dinner series. That’s problematic, because restaurants have long been designed to satiate and give ease. Over dinner a week later, my friend Yewande Komolafe distilled the effect, saying, “Restaurants are the last places you expect to be withheld something you desire.” Tunde subverts the most basic promise of restaurants, dating back to eighteenth-century Paris. Yes, he serves great food. That bean bisque, perfumed with fish sauce, still dances on the tip of my tongue. But he withholds something more important—comfort. Tunde insists that big questions go unresolved, that they trouble and rankle. 

Between courses, I moved to the bar, where I met Tami Sawyer. She’s the leader of Take ’Em Down 901, which worked to remove the prominent Memphis statue of Klan leader, slave trader, and Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest. The plan was to take it down before the fiftieth anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike, which drew Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis in April 1968. (On December 20, 2017, the City of Memphis removed the statue of Forrest, and a statue of Jefferson Davis.) 

Listening to her talk strategies, I fixated on the retributive elegance of taking down a memorial to a white supremacist on the anniversary of an assassin’s takedown of a black moral leader. At the time of his death, King was shifting focus from voting rights to economic justice, asking questions about seemingly intractable American problems that lacked ready answers. 

 

Tunde speaks and writes with smarts and ferocity. His ideas can render collateral damage. When Kim Severson wrote a New York Times profile of me in May of last year, she mistakenly cast Tunde’s critique of chef Sean Brock from our shared column as an appraisal of me: “White privilege permits a humble, folksy, and honest white boy to diligently study the canon of appropriated black food, then receive extensive celebration in magazines, newspapers, and television programming for reviving the fortunes of Southern cuisine.” When I mentioned this to Tunde, he smiled brightly and redirected the conversation. Her mistake, he seemed to imply, underlined his point. 

During the run-up to dinner, I asked why he sets these conversations in restaurants. Tunde tossed off the answer that many do, talking about the promise of a well-laid table and the way that smart conversations sneak up on people while they’re enjoying good food. In that response, he showed how the seductiveness of dining can queer honest food system inquiry by well-intentioned folk. 

Tunde spoke more convincingly in that Civil Eats piece about dining as protest when he wrote: “Modern dining reflects our ambivalence towards combatting racial prejudice, and reinforces racial hierarchy.” He declared that restaurant dining is “the final frontier of prejudice,” citing the lack of capital access for black would-be business owners, and other oppressions. “It is one of the few remaining social spaces premised on the tyranny of a soft-boiled racism.” 

 

Three weeks after that Memphis dinner, Charlotte writer Tommy Tomlinson asked during a radio interview if I would connect Paula Deen’s abuse of racial power imbalances in her treatment of Dora Charles, the black woman who developed many of the dishes on which Deen built her fame, with Brett Anderson’s reporting in the Times-Picayune that chef John Besh had abused gender power imbalances while running his New Orleans restaurants. 

To feed patrons, restaurateurs rely on economic models and labor methods codified in the nineteenth century. Burdened by the class and race and gender attitudes of that day, those systems defined excellence in kitchens until recently. At their worst, I recognized after talking with Tommy, those models and methods showcased the worst of capitalism. Too often, they still do. 

Profit imperatives force moral and economic compromises on farms and farmworkers. Kitchen power dynamics render women and people of color vulnerable to physical and emotional threat. Service worker pay, grounded in tipping, transfers economic onus and power to consumers. Pressures to eke profits from each step make restaurants the agar in our national petri dish. 

Like Tunde, I also once said that a well-laid table was a smart and sneaky place to focus attentions on serious matters like racism, class shaming, gender imbalances, and more. In conversation with Tommy and others, I’ve come to a harder truth: Farms and kitchens and dining rooms are unique sites of inequity, where difference and discrimination often fester. And, as Tunde has begun to prove, they can be defining sites for transformative conversations about contemporary life. 

Over the last generation, restaurants have emerged as clubhouses and civic forums. We court partners in restaurants. Americans raise families in restaurants. We mourn losses and celebrate life’s passages in restaurants. American expenditures on dining out now surpass what we spend on groceries. Eating is a burdened act: No fundamental human need, other than procreation, is so weighed down by ideas. The next step in our evolution as eaters, says Tunde, is to recognize the cultural, social, and economic power in public dining. 

More than two centuries after Julien’s opened in Boston, American restaurateurs are beginning to amend their promises. These cabinets particuliers serve new purposes. Acknowledging their resonance in popular culture, recognizing how kitchens and dining rooms incubate social inequity, thinkers and hosts like Tunde shoulder a responsibility to enlighten and challenge. One dinner at a time, they compel engaged eaters to ask questions without easy answers. 


See Ethan Payne’s film companion to this column here.


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John T. Edge has served as an Oxford American columnist since 1998. The city of Nashville has chosen his latest book, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South, as the citywide read for 2018.