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We Are What We Eat: Nigerian Chef Tunde Wey On Why Food Is Political

A Nashville hot chicken sandwich on display at Chicken Coupe Chicken Coupe hosted by Whoopi Goldberg during Food Networ & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival. (Monica Schipper/Getty Images for NYCWFF)
A Nashville hot chicken sandwich on display at Chicken Coupe Chicken Coupe hosted by Whoopi Goldberg during Food Networ & Cooking Channel New York City Wine & Food Festival. (Monica Schipper/Getty Images for NYCWFF)

Part III of our “We Are What We Eat” series.

The food we eat tells us so much about not only who we are as people — but also as a country.

What we love to eat and what we can afford to eat all tells a story that is uniquely ours even as it’s shaped by economics, geography and immigration. Our American foodways are also changing because of the coronavirus pandemic and this year’s racial reckoning.

Tunde Wey has been thinking about this for a long time. The New Orleans-based chef and writer from Nigeria made headlines last year with a food stand project where he charged white people and others more money for their meals as a means of paying for their daily privilege.

Wey’s North Nashville dinner project took advantage of one of the city’s most famous dishes — hot chicken — to highlight gentrification. Wey cooked up hot chicken that was given free to the neighborhood’s Black and Brown residents, and then sold it to white guests for prices that ranged from $100 for one piece of chicken to the price of the deed to a house for the full bird.

One person paid $100,000 for the chicken, Wey says. The money went toward affordable housing in North Nashville’s historically Black communities, which are rapidly being gentrified.

Looking back on some of his work, he admits it sounds “ridiculous.”

“It sounds preposterous to sell hot chicken for a house. It sounds ridiculous to charge white people more for food,” he says. “But like, the audacity of my work reflects the scale of the problem.”

Wey was inspired to pair food with political performance art because there was a lack of critical conversations around race and class in that space, he says. It’s also effective because people aren’t expecting it.

“I would say everything is a way to start having these conversations. I just happen to cook,” he says. “Probably [the] most unassuming place for protest is the most effective place for it. And so if I can bring those hypocrisies to bear in the restaurant space, then I will, because, you know, folks don’t really find them there.”

Wey says he has often felt turned off by American food culture, which he finds to be incredibly abstract. There is no message — just food on the plate, he says.

“I know that food can be this place where we express ourselves as a form of art, but I think you can see parallels between the economic system and how we focus on speculation and renting to grow capital, you can see that in the way we consume food,” he says. “And what is important to us is not necessarily how it tastes. It’s more about the theater around the thing.”

Interview Highlights

On the purpose behind the hot chicken project 

“In North Nashville, the communities that I was working with were historically Black communities that were being pushed out by gentrification. So the idea was how do we secure affordable housing for Black folks who are maybe retired, who have a fixed income and who are being preyed on? So why don’t we raise some money, buy their houses, put their houses in a community land trust and sell the homes back to them so they have the equity in their home, but they also have the security of affordable housing. And the way that I thought to do that was to sell hot chicken.

“So when I sold the hot chicken, I told folks what the problem was — like nobody was coming to eat the chicken. They were coming there to confront the reality of a city in Nashville that is rapidly gentrifying, and that gentrification is the product of a narrative of economic development that a lot of cities adopt at the expense of Black and Brown folks. And somebody bought a piece of chicken for like $100,000.”

On if these projects can evolve into something more long-term

“I mean, I don’t think it is because I was sort of like contemplating my work and I was thinking about what my success has been. And my biggest success, I guess, objectively, has been the amount of media coverage that the work has had. But if you think about what we need, by we I mean Black, Brown folks, you know, we need access to capital. The access doesn’t exist. But what we do have access to is access to markets like the media markets that allow for performance.

“So Black and Brown folks, Indigenous folks are consumed if they are performing. And so my work is, in a sense, a performance that plays well in media spaces because that is the only place where it is sustainable. And it’s sort of a tension, and I think a lot of Black artists and entrepreneurs and writers and folks who do work that is either critical or even just personal, this is stuff that they have to deal with. The field of play is limited. So it’s not a wonder why instead of playing on the field, someone like [former NFL player Colin Kaepernick] chooses to step to the side and take a knee, right? Because the game is rigged.”

On how his experiences in the U.S. have shaped how he views food and its political nature in this country 

“We all live with fear. That’s sort of, you know, a condition of life. But there’s a certain sort of fundamental uncertainty that folks who are immigrants or folks who are never quite in their own place feel. It is not possible to live that way — to live with that sort of fear that breeds a certain kind of PTSD, that breeds a certain kind of anxiety, that breeds a dislocation — it’s not possible to live with that fear and not have that taint how you see food, how you see the folks who make food, how you eat food.

“I know people, including myself, we can go to a restaurant, and when we sit down to eat we are thinking and looking at the back, how many white people are here? How many Black and Brown folks are here? How many of the Black and Brown folks are in the back? When you go out to a party, like how many Black and Brown folks are serving? You know, like that kind of thing. So … when you sort of experience life a certain way, the whole thing can look like a plantation. But sometimes, you just, I think, you drink a little bit so you don’t have to think about it all the time.”

On his series of Instagram videos called, “Let It Die,” which explore why the restaurant industry isn’t worth saving

“So I think it’s important to distinguish, say the industry from the people in the industry. I’m not advocating for people to be unemployed or destitute. So I think that conflation between the people who make up the industry and the industry itself, which serves capital and ownership, is one that I am trying to break. So ‘Let It Die’ is about really the folks who maintain and wield power in the industry, the ownership, the special interest groups. Those are the folks who shape the current unequal circumstances. That’s what I’m talking about when I say, ‘Let It Die.’

“The vulnerability of the workforce of the Black and Brown folks in the industry has always been there. If anything, COVID has made it worse because Black and Brown folks, Indigenous folks, are more vulnerable but less protected. We want to delineate between a worker and the person as if they are not the same thing. The reason why restaurants are open right now is because the government doesn’t want to fund an economy where folks are paid to stay home and be safe. So folks have to work. That is not a situation or a condition that we should memorialize by using words like frontline workers. It’s terrible. It’s terrible. Plaudits and praise don’t keep people safe, and so nothing has changed. And I say that, you know, we are at the cusp of nothing new.”

Cristina Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSamantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.