A New Dinner Series Raises Tough Questions on Immigration in America
Nigerian chef, speaker, and writer Tunde Wey is gathering eaters of diverse backgrounds to discuss the challenges American immigrants face—including from each other
Tunde Wey gave us homework.
In a dimly lit loft in Brooklyn, a group of 30 strangers sat around folding tables draped in linen. At the center of each place setting was a menu printed on an enlarged copy of an expired Nigerian passport, and at the top of the menu were five unsettling questions to discuss throughout the evening.
The menu itself, five vegan courses of West African cuisine, was spare. Whatever “c pepper soup broth” and “beets + locust beans + pepper sauce” lacked in full names, they made up with vibrant flavors and a medley of warming spices whose subtle heat lingered in the back of my throat long after the plates had been whisked away.
Conversation buzzed hot as utensils scraped across porcelain, gathering up the last bites of inky mushroom cascading over mounds of taro, and black beans sweetened with coconut and spiked with brandy. Before the last course arrived, Wey emerged from the kitchen and ascended the staircase overlooking the makeshift dining room.
Dressed in a white button-down shirt, black pants, and black Converse sneakers, with a crisp black apron tied around his waist, Wey beamed and thanked us for coming over for dinner. He didn’t ask if we enjoyed the food, but called for a show of hands to see who had done the assigned reading he emailed a few days before. Playfully, he interrogated each table about their dinner conversation.
“Discuss how immigrants adversely impact you,” read the first question, a squeamish one for the ethnically diverse group of guests, many of whom were immigrants. A Bangladeshi man addressed his own complicity in American anti-immigration attitudes. “As a successful immigrant, I feel that immigrants who are less successful from my own country are easy to judge. I’m the one who’s like, You’re the good Bangladeshi, you get American culture, so you can pass. But to the ‘smelly’ Bangladeshi guy, You can’t.”
Wey chimed in, “Wait, you’re a successful immigrant?” The man laughed, “I think I am!?” A Puerto Rican woman added: “We often absorb this racism in environments with other immigrants that pin us up against one another in ways that are really harmful.”
Titled "1882" after the Chinese Exclusion Act—the first major law to restrict immigration to the United States—the event was the latest in Wey's new pop-up dinner series. While the menu has varied from city to city—in Philly and Brooklyn it was all vegan—the theme is constant: a food-fueled discussion of anti-immigration sentiment in America.
What’s currently a politically charged topic is also a personal narrative for Wey, 32, who willingly goes on record about his undocumented status. Originally from Nigeria, Wey came to the U.S. 16 years ago on a student visa that has long since expired. He first lived in Detroit where, after dropping out of college and doing odd jobs, he taught himself basic culinary skills and learned to cook the food he grew up eating in Nigeria.
Wey co-founded a restaurant in Detroit revolving around experimental pop-ups, then moved to New Orleans to try his hand at running a food stall. He reimagined pop-up dinners as tours that have garnered him national praise due to his exceptional cooking, mastery of spices, and "crash and burn" style, and he's currently reworking the defunct food stall to become a brick-and-mortar restaurant by the same name, Lagos, after the Nigerian port city. All while speaking and writing about black food and culture in America.
The article Wey assigned us challenged immigration controls entirely, proposing a global society without borders, which led to deeper questions of consumption, food and otherwise.
“If you let labor cross international boundaries—which is what immigration is—you’ll have a massive redistribution of wealth,” said Krishnendu Ray, food scholar and chair of NYU’s Nutrition and Food Studies Department, who sat at my table. “Can we deal with it? You can’t be radical and left and just wear the t-shirt. Can you live with the costs of it when ideology gets turned into lifestyle?”
The night’s menu, free of animal products, pointed toward the ties between immigrants, available resources, and how different groups consume them differently. A vegan Nigerian guest put it in perspective: “I think about immigration a lot in Nigeria, especially at a time when Europeans are coming in,” she said. “Africa is a new frontier [for them], and it concerns me that, when a white person moves into Nigeria, they extract the same amount of resources as 100 Nigerians.”
Racial inequality is deeply entrenched in the conversation about immigration, Wey tells me via email, but it's difficult to articulate because it's so visceral. The way he structured the 1882 series was distinct from his previous pop-up on blackness in America, which toured during the summer months leading up to the U.S. presidential election.
Because immigration “is not as visceral for most Americans, and is usually discussed in a cerebral way,” Wey set out to engender complicity in his guests by situating their own lurking prejudices within the conversation. He says that his only expectation for the 1882 series was “to remind us that we all embody the problem, to lesser or a greater extent, that we are critiquing.”
One woman shared how taxing that complicity can be. “I remember I was in a room where a Syrian guy was going to teach us what it was like to be a Syrian refugee,” she said pensively. “I thought, that’s a horrible position to be in, to have one guy speak for all these people! But that’s normalized here. If you’re a minority or a triple minority—race, sex, gender—the majority of people in that room demand so much of your emotional labor and intellectual labor to explain everything in a digestible way, and they do not meet you halfway.”
The discussion came back to that issue throughout the evening: Instead of understanding immigrants as individuals, we often see them as representatives that act on behalf of their entire community.
Wey says his ultimate goal is “to develop a complete and whole conception of immigrants as people, and move from reductionist narratives. To think about immigrants beyond just labor,” and as human beings deserving of dignity beyond a government document or the economic value of their work.
“Immigrants,” he goes on, “who like all people have rich interior lives, are essentialized for commodification.” Even champions of immigration reform in the U.S. often do so in the context of wealth: the jobs they take that others won’t; the critical role they play in the American economy; the way they enrich a broader cultural tapestry.
It’s a compelling narrative, but a potentially dangerous one, that can “[reduce immigrants] to trends and commodities to be exploited and experienced, then discarded,” he explains
But not on that night. Similar to the way he prepared each course, Wey orchestrated an experience that was thoughtful and unfussy, partly improvised, peppered with discomfort, and, most importantly, one that would not easily be discarded.
For future updates on Wey’s pop-up dinners, visit his website.