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Seward Co-op Invites Tunde Wey to Address Race and Food

Tunde Wey gave the keynote address to an expected crowd of 700 at the Seward Co-op’s annual meeting Oct. 23.

When Tunde Wey hosted a dinner for 700 at the Seward Community Co-op’s annual owner meeting in October, it wasn’t about the food, although he spent hours preparing Nigerian dishes for the members. His role as keynoter was to talk about the real cost of food, using the 1863 Homestead Act to spark the

Wey was invited to address the group after Seward’s Diversity and Community Engagement Manager LaDonna Sanders-Redmond, a food justice advocate, read about Wey’s “Blackness in America” dinner series in the Washington Post and thought, “we have some people in common.”

Unlike the intimate dinners he hosts around the country where he’s the primary cook, Wey supervised the preparation of the food in Minneapolis, Sanders-Redmond explained, adding, “Usually he does dinners for 12 to 20 people.” For this event, “he’ll bring his recipes” for traditional Nigerian food, such as egusi, a soup of crushed melon seeds; jollof rice, prepared with tomatoes, peppers and onion; moin moin (black-eyed peas, red peppers and spices steamed in a banana leaf, which resembles a tamale); and peppered chicken.

Some of the topics he proposed he'll cover (this phone interview was before the event due to our deadlines) were the fair cost of labor both in farming and foodservice and access to healthy food and health care for minority women and children. And about what’s happening in America today. Sanders-Redmond summed it up as a conversation around class, race, gender and immigration concerns, such as workers in factory farms who are often afraid to report injuries for fear of being fired. Access to healthy food for everyone is also a  topic of interest.

Seward may have the most diverse board in the country, according to Sanders-Redmond, but the issues around race and food still resonate even in a progressive city like Minneapolis. Remember, Minnesota was thrust into the national spotlight with the Philando Castile shooting, and then again when the Latino officer was found not guilty of killing the black man, back in June. 

Wey grew up in a middle-class family in the capital of Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa. In Lagos, everyone he interacted with from teachers to his doctor to the shopkeepers were black. Race wasn’t an issue. And then he came to the U.S. at 16 to attend school.

A self-taught cook, Wey wasn’t looking to get into the restaurant business, although he opened—and closed—a short-lived market. “I had been writing for awhile before I started cooking,” he says. For his pop-up dinners, which the Washington Post referred to as “discomfort food,” he prepares as much of the four-course meal as possible by himself. “Nigerian food is the inspiration,” he says, “but whatever I feel like cooking at the time—that’s all I know how to cook.”

It was the Black Lives Matter movement that sprung up in the wake of multiple killings of young black men by police officers that was the motivation for his dinner series, he says, with the idea of “how to combine food with commentary.”

The dinners themselves have become a movement. He does two series, one on race and one on immigration, and has hosted in about 12 different cities to date. People sign up to attend through his website, “From Lagos.” The cost of the current event in New York City is $65. Wey isn’t planning on doing a dinner in Minneapolis, just the keynote speech at Seward. 

Attendees to his dinners are a mix of blacks and whites, with mostly blacks at the table. Sometimes there’s a guest performance, such as a poet, but the while the main course is conversation, the food is important. “I love cooking alone with quiet or my music (playing),” Wey says.

And they’re tough conversations, Wey admits, but necessary ones if our country is to have a chance at reconciliation. 

Tunde Wey is joined by local activists in the cities where he hosts his Blackness in America dinners. 

The irony is that the people who attend are liberals who are often surprised—and uncomfortable—when a spotlight is shone on their biases. And, of course, this applies mostly to the white people who Wey describes as “regular folks with an armor of good intentions.”

Wey gives the example from the dinner he hosted in Charlotte, North Carolina, where a “white dude was aggressively telling my co-presenter to talk louder.” The man felt diminished by the negative talk around white privilege and felt the need to assert himself in a belligerent way, Wey explained. “I see flair-ups in aggression couched in ‘housekeeping.’”

The dinners aren’t meant to solve problems that have been hundreds of years in the making, although that is often what the whites in attendance will try to do, rather than sit and experience their dis-ease. Here’s how the Washington Post described the dinner in Pittsburgh: “There is catharsis among the black guests at the dinner, and understanding among the others.”

The purpose of the gatherings, Wey says, is not to be social or to have a good time. It’s to open up a dialogue around race and address the issues around privilege. It’s giving a forum for blacks and women to say out loud what they often have to choke down. And for others to hear it. All with the hospitality that breaking bread together brings.

For the Seward Co-op, the evening was a chance to delve deeper into their shared values. While the co-op works hard at being inclusive, it also wants to attract more diversity in its vendors and to ensure that the food purveyors whose products are sold in its co-ops and in the restaurant are treating both workers and the animals ethically. 

“This is something new,” Sanders-Redmond says. “We’ve never invited a chef in to cook.” Nor have they ever hosted a banquet with the idea that no one is going to go home with a spring in their step. And if not a solution, maybe the first step in a long journey will be taken. 

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