Pop-up meal aims to discuss race, wealth and community

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Chef, writer and activist Tunde Wey is taking the pop-up dinner beyond just a meal — he is making the experience a conversation about community, race, wealth and privilege.

He’s bringing his latest pop-up, Saartj, to Bank Suey in Hamtramck next month. There, he says he’ll serve Nigerian cuisine while talking about what community transformation looks like.

Now — as Detroit is evolving in so many ways — is an important time to have such a conversation. Who better to host it than Wey, a Nigerian immigrant who has spent time cooking and living in Detroit, New Orleans and elsewhere around the country?

“I think that in Detroit, and in most cities, no matter where you are on the spectrum — whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, socialist or capitalist or whatever — we’re all concerned with transforming our communities,” he said, adding that he thinks there’s a right way and a wrong way to do so. “We all agree that we’re invested in transformation, but we should still call out the sort of transformation that is destructive or is not inclusive.”

The Saartj pop-up — which is named after Saartjie Baartman, a 19th century South African woman who was put on display in Europe because of her figure — will be tailored to each person based on their privilege, says Wey. Because of this, before purchasing a ticket to the event, diners must first fill out a survey that asks your age, race, gender, ZIP code, education, employment status and other details.

Regardless of what you fill out, all tickets to Saartj are $50. Wey made national news when he popped Saartj in New Orleans as a lunch counter and asked folks to play different prices depending on their race. A boxed lunch was $12, but he asked white people to pay $30 to reflect the racial income imbalance in that city.

He won’t do exactly that in Detroit. Instead he says he will tailor the menu and experience to each diner’s privilege. He wouldn’t tell me exactly how — he wants people to be in the moment and not go in with any expectations — but promises it won’t be anything outrageous.

He says in many commercial interactions, folks appraise you and then treat you a certain way based on that appraisal.

“We want to know who you are,” he said. “Where you’re from, where you live, how much you earn ... if you come from wealth, if you don’t ... and based on that we’re going to tailor the dinner to that privilege.”

“We’re going to be talking about self-determination, we’re going to be talking about blackness — because we are talking about Detroit — and we’re talking about what it means in general to have resilience and communities,” he said, adding that in San Francisco, where he was when we spoke last week, there is a very expensive housing market and a very low percentage of people of color.

They moved out because of gentrification, which is a worry here in Detroit. Wey says that blackness is not a niche topic.

“The way these things work is that eventually what was niche or on the fringe becomes everybody’s concern,” he said. “This is a dinner about what it means to be black in a changing Detroit and what is possible, or rather what is the most effective way to embrace change and still keep a certain inclusivity.”

Besides the socially conscious theme and conversation, Saartj features Nigerian food. The menu is still being solidified; Wey said he has to get into town and see what’s available first. It’s possible that duck, rice dishes, beans and Scotch eggs will be served. (Wey says Scotch eggs came to Nigeria through British colonization.)

Wey has invited Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network to be on hand. He says it’s Yakini’s work that inspired these dinners. As he was thinking about how to talk of and address wealth disparity questions, he started referencing Yakini’s work.

Wey says people like Yakini and Devita Davison of FoodLab Detroit represent a larger philosophy. They want to lessen the impact that racism and white privilege have on the food system.

Saartj is 7 p.m. May 2-5 at Bank Suey, 10345 Jos Campau in Hamtramck. Purchase tickets at saartj.com.


Twitter: @melodybaetens