Editor's note: This story is part of an occasional series on what area community leaders and residents are doing to balance "peace and pride" in their neighborhoods.
The restaurant at the Durham Hotel is known for its eclectic, changing menu. But on a recent day, visiting Chef Tunde Wey turned it up a notch with a first course that included cow foot, tossed in palm oil, a citrus vinaigrette, kumquats, shallots and jollof rice, a popular dish in many West African countries.
Wey said it’s best to be prepared for the pepper soup in the second course.
“It has lots of pepper and it also has lots of flavor so just tell folks to approach it with some caution,” he said.
Hot and spicy can also describe the dinner conversation at this “pop-up” meal. Wey has hosted nearly two dozen of them in cities across the country in a series called “Blackness in America.” Racism, poverty, immigration, police violence – all are fair game at his dinners.
Wey lives in New Orleans. He was invited to cook in Durham by the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, CEFS. Dinner guests paid for their meals.
“Everybody speaks to everybody as much as that can happen in a room of 40 to 50 people,” he said. “And then we talk about some difficult things, some funny things, but mostly difficult things.”
The way Wey sees it, a hearty meal full of jollof rice, plantains, African yams and quail can sometime add just the right amount of comfort to sometimes difficult conversations.
One “pop-up” dinner was after the police-involved shootings of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, followed by the shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers. Another meal was after November’s presidential election.
At the dinner in Durham, Jesse Huddleston, who is black, admitted he was not comfortable.
“I didn’t want to tell my story,” he said. “I don’t know these people, they don’t know me. They don’t deserve, they haven’t earned the right to have an audience with me. I don’t say that proudly.”
While emotions flared during dinner, the food remained the center of attention. Huddleston was impressed. He describes his favorite part of the meal.
“It was like mango, ginger, it was kind of like a sorbet or something,” he said. “That was live. God entered the room once that hit my table. I was like, oh God is here!”
Also at the Durham dinner was Russ Campbell, who is white. He sat quietly during most of the event, taking in the conversation that touched on ways to de-center whiteness while also digesting the third course: stewed spinach cooked in palm oil, red bell peppers, onions, with dry smoked shrimp and fermented locust beans.
“How do you get beyond the self and get out to the larger, the bigger picture?,” Campbell asked. “That’s a much more difficult question and something that cannot be solved by just sitting down to dinner.”
But Campbell acknowledged sitting around a table was a good start. And the food was definitely a plus.
“I like the soup, the soup was very hot, and challenging, and kind of made me a little bit uncomfortable,” he said. “ I think the soup was a very good metaphor for the dinner itself.”
Wey said it can be exhausting to put together these meals city after city. But, he said, it’s more exhausting to try to constantly understand the reality of America and translate that to people who see that differently.