Can a Blind Dinner Date Help Bring Down Border Walls?
Nigerian chef Tunde Wey’s latest dinner series hosts first dates as a commentary on American immigration policy
Tunde Wey’s dinners aren’t really about the food: Despite spending 14 hours preparing a 6-course Nigerian feast for his guests, Wey isn’t all that interested in explaining the various dishes coming out of the small kitchen he’s taken over for the weekend. A couple in the dining room inquires about a fufu dish with a series of vibrant condiments, to which Wey replies warmly, but briefly: “Beans. Peppers.” His brevity requests a kind of trust—a loosening of our sense of control, and a faith in his work.
That sense of trust is at the heart of "Marriage Trumps All," Wey's dinner series that took place this past weekend in Pittsburgh, PA. For two evenings, the Nigerian-born chef produced a dining experience as a part of a larger exhibition at the city's August Wilson Cultural Center entitled "Familiar Boundaries, Infinite Possibilities." The premise of the series was to facilitate legitimate love marriages between U.S. citizens and immigrants by hosting first dates. Interested participants submitted a dating profile ahead of time in hopes of being matched for a blind date on one of the two evenings. U.S. citizens were required to provide proof of their citizenship, subverting the typical pressure placed on immigrants, and if matched successfully, the citizens were also responsible for footing the $120 bill—another means of shifting the burden, this time in pure cost, away from the marginalized group. Wey says this is not just a representation of an uneven system, but a reminder that "true revolution happens when folks with capital are just as burdened as folks without."
The two dinners were hosted at a house owned by one of Wey's partners in the project, City of Asylum (COA), a local non-profit organization that provides sanctuary to endangered literary writers, helping prevent their voices from being silenced. The people behind COA were inspired by Wey's version of food-based storytelling, and soon enough, they were helping Wey sort through dating profiles, playing matchmaker for his project. The process was more challenging than expected, admits Abby Lembersky, program manager at COA. "There was a level of fear, mistrust, and suspicion," she says. "Especially considering the current political climate around immigration, it was difficult to find immigrants willing to openly participate."
When the first guests arrived on Friday evening, to a sleepy street on the city's Northside, the kitchen inside hummed with anticipation. Over the course of an almost three-hour-long meal, diners shared Wey's take on traditional Nigerian dishes, including quail with peanuts and ginger, jollof rice, and goat paté with taro root. It was some guests' first encounter with food from the West African country. A deeply smoky banga soup, made with palm fruit, was a particular standout, as was a savory stew of egusi melon. Prior to the dinner, Wey and local partners visited one of the few African stores in the city to secure distinct ingredients like palm oil, cassava flour, and Nigerian spices.
While food is certainly Wey's platform, it is not his message. One goal of the meal was to start conversations about immigration in America, and, as he puts it, disrupt global power differentials. Despite the guests' praise of Wey's menu, he was more focused on what would happen after the meal—a discussion led by himself and a colleague from COA on the topic of "love, marriage, and immigration."
As guests spooned the last melted bites of a chilled date sorbet with purple yams, Wey filled his glass of wine and pulled a chair into the dining room. “We’re going to talk about love,” he began, and asked diners if they thought financial differences between romantic partners made relationships difficult. Many guests shared stories about dating someone above or below their socio-economic status, and how it often intersected with differences in race, nationality, and culture. Wey encouraged guests to speak about issues of access and freedom of travel, emphasizing that not everyone can be a “citizen of the world,” with the privileges that many American citizens enjoy. He pushed, at times, to connect individuals’ stories to larger issues of inequality between the so-called “global north” and “global south.” As the evening came to a close, Kilolo Luckett, the Acting Curator of Visual Arts at the August Wilson Cultural Center, who invited Wey to Pittsburgh, articulated a sentiment that seemed to be shared by many in the room: “This has been so illuminating."
The evening's discussion took place in the midst of a government shutdown battle fueled by President Trump's fixation on border security, and in the aftermath of 2 years of repeated challenges to existing immigration policies by the president. In 2017, President Trump cut the annual refugee quota in half, and has since announced a "zero tolerance" policy along the border and proposed new restrictions on green cards. His current immigration policy denies asylum for any undocumented immigrants who entered the country illegally (to which a U.S. District Court Judge issued a temporary restraining order in November).
I asked Wey later if the pretense of a dinner, and a shared meal, makes these difficult conversations more feasible. How important is food itself to engaging people on difficult topics related to borders, immigration and policy? “I think these conversations can and should happen outside of [this format]. But food certainly helps to soften things up,” he says. “The food itself sort of ‘chews’ the topic so people can digest it better.” He compares the role he wants food to play to that of oxygen—it is something that you need to consume, but it isn’t the focus of your evening. It should simply provide the backdrop to dialogue, conversation, or perhaps even more radical change.
The changes Wey hopes to enact, to be clear, are not subtle. Wey has a singular fixation on shifting power dynamics in a world shaped by global extraction and inequities. The ultimate goal of the dinners, he says, is to examine social institutions built on human relationships and interactions which we take for granted—in this case, marriage. He tells me that his dinner is his own subversive way to wield institutions in such a way as to create bolder forms of inclusion. In his view, social institutions are prescient, and where they go, law and policy usually follow. It’s possible that a person’s choice of who to date, or even just who to dine with, may somehow impact a skewed imbalance between America and the rest of the world. The idea is at once both wildly global and inspiringly personal.
The dinners themselves beg the question: What can one face-to-face conversation do to shape how we envision our borders and ourselves? The expansive potential of Wey’s work is, in part, what makes it so arresting. Wey is preparing to bring his dinner series to other cities around the country, and at least one couple from the Pittsburgh series made plans for a second date. Marriage might be a ways off, but at least now it’s on the table.