Dinner as Demonstration Cooking as Underlying Food as Reparation

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Imagine a restaurant where white clients have to pay three times more than their Black counterparts; or a dinner in a gentrifying neighborhood where a gentrifier is placed at the table of a long-time resident… only two of many scenarios Tunde Wey instigates in his cooking demonstrations, as he explains in this interview.

Article published in The Funambulist 31 (September-October 2020) Politics of Food. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Ingredients /// There is something vertiginous in thinking that each ingredient that we use in each dish we cook has a long political history, a part of which always takes us back to colonialism. We often think of sugar, chocolate, tea, or coffee, but this is true for many many others. How do you exhume such histories in your various projects?

TUNDE WEY: As Leeds United coach Marcelo Bielsa said, “the answer is in the question.” The answer is in the question because everything is collected back to this history of exploitation, but my work is not forensic about the ingredients. For me it is not important to pick one or two things out, unless as a demonstration of something. But usually my demonstrations in my works and my dinners where I gather folks together, we have conversations with these demonstration projects where I use food to highlight different disparities. That is when, if it helps the demonstration, I will use an ingredient in a metaphorical way. 

Here’s an example: I am starting this prepackaged foods brand. I am selling salt to white people for 100 dollars, an outrageous price because Black life is outrageously devalued. I am using the salt to speak to a different truth that I saw as elemental; I do not know a single culture that does not have some sort of salinity in their food. So, salt as a base, racism and colonial exploitation as a base, those are the metaphors that I draw. The literal examination of ingredients and actual food I don’t do. For me food is always in the background even though it is what is present and what draws people together, food is always in the background. We don’t examine the food unless it is important to the examination of larger issues. Food is also a large issue, or the large issue. But for me it is primarily a lens, like I think of it as oxygen: it is necessary. So you are breathing air, but the only time you are aware of it is maybe when you are meditating or usually when there is something wrong with the air like somebody farted or there is some terrible shit happening around, or there is not enough air; then, we bring it up. But in this place where food is generally plentiful even though the distribution of food is engineered such that it is unavailable to some folks. I don’t generally talk about food scarcity, but I talk about food as a metaphor for power. 

Wey Funambulist (1)
Tunde Wey’s “Love Will Trump” dinner in Pittsburgh. Citizens and immigrants in the U.S. set on a blind date. / Photo by Joey Kennedy (2019).

LL: Serving /// In your projects, food is always an event. The restaurants or sites you create for this event are very deliberate in the way food is served and, often, this way depends on who is the receiver of it. Could you tell us more about what we could perhaps call a political choreography?