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 beans—just 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 chef—he'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 power—and maybe subconsciously to defend it."