I. Men Who Fix Things

There’s a necessary concoction of good intention and hubris that propels men, those of us socially instructed to be masters of the universe, fathers and philanderers, to attempt improbable things, fueled exclusively by the idea that we can do anything, and do it better.

This notion, which welds a narrow respect of history with a grand vision for the future, is the motor that propels San Francisco’s startup princes, populist political animals, self-important writers and vanity-begotten chefs.

In the summer of 2013, under a Copenhagen tent teeming with the most acclaimed food professionals — that is, chefs and food writers — from around the world, Roy Choi gave a presentation at the MAD conference, a TED-style food symposium.

Dressed in a black T-shirt, “Stüssy” boldly stylized in gold across his chest, a flat-brimmed L.A. cap and camouflage pants, the Southern California chef spoke to the shadowed and quieted crowd, his voice trembling from anxiety and emotion.

Rattling off a series of dismal statistics, each more successively disheartening, Choi talked about the dire condition of the south central Los Angeles community. Of poverty, childhood hunger, curbed access to healthy food, dim education prospects. Of anemic civic participation, disintegrating households and prevalent violence.

Despite being inoculated from these desperate vagaries of non-Hollywood Los Angeles, which he was describing, Choi felt indicted by his proximity.

Warning of injustice as a universal threat, he exhorted his affluent, conscience-afflicted audience of food people to leverage their resources and act: “So why do I say all of these things at a food conference with the best chefs in the world? Because I really believe that chefs can do anything.”


“Whether you like am, whether you no like am, the thing be say, you go still dey shake body.” — Trybesmen, 1998

Translation: We can’t help but do what we’ve been programmed to do.

Let food forever be the metaphor, and food stories the allegory. Because food alone, by its unsentimental self — before celebrity, before vanity, before its appearances in television and print — was fuel. Let it be fuel again to bring our most objectionable selves to heel, to further better ideas. Maybe this is how the expression “food for thought” was cooked. Fuel.


The older I get, the stronger my emotional indigestion: The smallest swallow of violence may incite depression. Last weekend I purposefully inoculated myself against any news of the neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va. I didn’t want to know, instead losing myself in Premier League Football and Disney’s “Moana.” But the news was pervasive, crawling down the face of my computer, clawing for my ears. And because white supremacy outlasts soccer games and children’s films, eventually I was compelled to contend with the insistent images.

All those white marchers — illuminated by fury, their faces tortured into evil snarling — held my attention, until my fixation flew to less obvious details. The preppy and casual outfits of some of the marchers, politely dressed in contrast to their ferocious resentments. The weave work of the cheap tiki torches lighting their march, backyard accessories that were never designed to menace.

Even in that spectacular image of homicide suspended — a silver Dodge Charger possessed by unrefined hatred, surging with lethal intent through a crowd of counter protesters, flinging human bodies like dolls — I thought about how that moment of murder was only possible courtesy of advanced camera shutter speed. Something else seized my attention, in this picture depicting horror at its zenith: one of the tumbling victims, falling backwards to the pavement with his legs splayed was sporting red Jordan sneakers.

From my perch, the entire vignette of images from the march, mediated by the safety of distance, was a surreal sequence heightened by normalcy: violence and death literally competing with quotidian life. America was everywhere in this anachronistic event, boldly listed and surreptitiously advertised.


Dinner on Friday was long and sweet, with the intermittent odor of reality disturbing the shiny glassware. Around the round, white-clothed table, set in Birmingham, Ala., I sat with interesting friends. The six of us passed jokes around like the complimentary in-shell pistachios that we shuttled without a thought. The laughter from our rowdy table was a geometric triumph — a circle of dominoes starting from the progenitor of the anecdote then traveling clockwise to tickle everyone, one after the other and all the way back to the start.

We were in town for a food conference, laughing like it was all the vogue and eating deliciously at Highlands, an upscale restaurant on the south side of town. At the table were a food writer, an associate editor for a literary food publication and a magazine editor from San Francisco. Also, a cable news correspondent, along with a graduate professor of creative writing from Athens, Ga.

A pork chop, grilled with the bone in, was softly deposited in front of me, its glistening skin was grate-scarred as proof of excellent technique. Scott, my dapper editor friend, sat to the right of me in a white-collared shirt, covered smartly with a navy blue sports coat and further distinguished by a gold-and-blue silk pocket square. His plate was medallioned with duck, tender and cascading. A week before Lent, he was as charismatic as Jesus on Palm Sunday, familiar and comfortable. The company was mature, cultured and raucous, and I was in the mood for a lively time.

The cocktail, performing in a rocks glass — the only way to imbibe a cocktail, in my opinion — did all it could to encourage. Everything I ate that evening came at the recommendation of Red Dog, the older and capable famous waiter of the Highlands, who had never been to the West Coast and was inconceivably the son of a 97-year-old mother. I watched as he emptied the table of wine glasses with the quietness of ballet feet, his Creole-colored hands transforming into a wine rack.

Then came a moment when I broke the ring of laughter. I didn’t realize it.


A lot was still possible in Detroit of 2013: As a broke, undocumented Nigerian immigrant, I could stumble into co-owning a well-regarded restaurant. We called it (revolver), parenthesis included.

Ours was a quirky DIY party. My partner Peter and I stayed up the night before our grand opening, fashioning dining tables from solid-core doors and four-by-fours purchased from Home Depot; Peter’s home stereo and speakers were our sound system. Each night, a different local chef ran the kitchen, offering a new multi-course menu of the finest and trendiest food in the city. All the local greats and a few not-so-greats came through. We garnered some attention when we made the local paper, and things picked up. That imprimatur signaled our entree into the cadre of Detroit’s new culinary movement, an important part of the city’s wider resurgence from bona fide, court sanctioned, collapse.

By the time the global financial crisis hit in the mid-2000s, Detroit had plenty of practice flirting with disaster. The automobile mono economy was unsustainable. The regional and state governments were intent on penalizing the thinning majority-black city for infractions real and perceived. There was bureaucratic complacency and corruption at administrative ranks: Former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was incarcerated on the heels of multiple scandals, miring municipal leadership in embarrassing infighting. The local real estate market imploded, and General Motors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, causing further havoc in the business sector.


“This is food for thought — you do the dishes” — hova


I am a traveling cook. I began my itinerant cooking career in the fall of 2014, leaving a restaurant I had helped start in the Detroit area in part because I was unimpressed with contemporary food culture. Each week our restaurant hosted a different chef, and they turned out precious (and delicious) tasting menus, the food arranged with surgical precision on trendy plates.

Fed up, in a manner of speaking, I wanted to show Americans what “real food” was and the proper way to enjoy — just eat it!

With little expertise but the experience my mouth holds from eating Nigerian food all my life, I decided to cook. “Nigerian food” is a catch-all phrase for the wild menagerie of dishes flung together, and forced to coexist, sometimes in admiration and other times in jealousy, by the imperialist whims of Great Britain.


Since John T. is a familiar son, allow me, at the outset, to introduce myself. I am African—Nigerian to be specific, a Yoruba boy from Lagos who lived in Ikeja, on Alhaja Kofoworola crescent, about a mile from Airport Hotel, to be obscure.

I am not a chef, at least not in the uncomplicated sense. I never trained professionally in accredited schools, never studied under a brand-name chef or staged in a celebrated kitchen. Right before my first professional gig, a little under three years ago (a panicked production, to say the least), I called my mother in Nigeria for recipe refreshers even as a hundred hungry and impatient diners revolted politely just outside my kitchen, where an assortment of newfangled stainless-steel utensils hung, staring accusingly at me. 

I am not a Southerner. I have lived in the South for only about a year—in New Orleans, “the most African city in America,” as I have heard some folks describe it. And I nod sagely in agreement. 

I am African, neither a Southerner nor a chef. But in the matters we’re about to discuss, neither provenance, place, nor title matters. Like humidity, the truth thickens all air.

At age sixteen, I arrived in the United States, landing in Detroit. Sixteen years later, I moved to New Orleans. I remember sitting in the long airplane for the short flight, leaving Detroit for my new home, characteristically unsentimental: pursed lips and large headphones, listening to loud rap music from a glowing phone. Inevitably the boom bap faded into white noise, and my mind’s voice floated from silence to remind me of Detroit’s outsized influence in my life. It was in Detroit, within the city’s actual boundaries—not its romanticized and imaginary borders—where I understood I was an African. There, by kind force, I learned to drop my christened name, which I had used throughout my abortive college career in the U.S., and returned to my first name, Tunde—the contracted form of Akintunde, which means “the warrior has returned.”

After living in New Orleans for a year, I reflect now on how this city, still very new to me, has insisted I confront my identity in a new way. “Here you are black,” she says. And I nod sagely in agreement.


othing I met in Egypt, Kentucky, was like I imagined, except the cliché of rolling hills and craggy mountains. Except the poke, and other ground cover, green. No guns were visible except the Confederate flags that flew, that hung limp, wrapped in a wan clutch, not fluttering, clinging to their poles. I’d known, in theory, that melons must be too heavy to hang off trees, but here watermelon and banana cantaloupes lay on the ground. To see them harvested in a quick snap from their thin snaking placenta, lifted off their floored womb, was both ordinary and fantastic.

I’d been invited to dinner here, at a family farm called Big Switch at the head of its Egypt holler. The two-story home’s exterior was weathered wood, and the house sat on its haunches against a hill, overlooking the habitable portion of the farm. From ridge to ridge, the land was watched, gossiped on. The panorama of extractable minerals buried underneath malachite greens; it’s the way in these parts.

Big Switch exists as a haven—for hemp, for apples of a hundred varieties, sweet peppers, sauce and slicing tomatoes, those melons I mentioned, and for its owners, Lora and Joe, community organizers and parents to Wiley and Alma.

Lora and I met a few months back in the beautiful but tame Rivendell, Tennessee, at a supersecret retreat that we still wonder about to each other—a slight convocation of cooks and writers, holed up with expensive meats and a few bourbons from God’s bar. I like to hitch myself to stars, and Lora was bright. A month after we met, I invited myself to Big Switch. I would be in Louisville on September 9 to cohost a collaborative dinner with Edward Lee. Maybe I could come down then. Lora never hesitated. The day after my dinner, she drove the 150-mile trek between Egypt and Louisville to bring me to her home.

The roads that lead to Big Switch are not roads; they are endless lanes of boomeranged tar that wrap around hills so mighty. Wrap around hills so mighty that everyone in the vehicle stays pressed to the side of the car opposite the tall rocks. When that mess of a meander is done, you fall to the flat bottom of tall mountains, and your attention—previously loaned to death due to the incessant, narrowly missed collisions with expert oncoming traffic—is now tuned to the natural canopy that rises. These trees grow high, and they are insulted by you. But the mountains are inevitably stone-faced oath-breakers, and they eventually open into freedom, the peace of Big Switch.

By the time we reached Jackson County, night was with us. As we glided over the farm’s gravel drive, a cool breeze blew up from the expansive cockpit of Lora’s late model Toyota Prius. I alighted into all the normal noise of dark woods. This part of Appalachia was wholly uninterested in my fantasy of what Appalachia was supposed to be.


TUNDE: I travel around the country, staging pop-up dinners where Nigerian comfort food and discomfiting conversations about race in America are on the menu. When I told my friends in Louisville, Ky., that I was headed eastward into Appalachia to cook, I got many an incredulous, "Really?! Are you sure that's a good idea? Don't get shot ..." — usually followed by a collegial elbow jab and a self-conscious chuckle.

White, urban Kentuckians told me to be wary, that my blackness and foreignness were a combustible identity cocktail in that rural place. These warnings would have been innocuous if they hadn't been pervasive — and universally smothered with uncomfortable laughter. They were just joking. Except they weren't.

There was an ominous dissonance in this warning when it came from my close friend — like me, a black Nigerian. He's imposing, appreciably muscled and tall. His skin color is close to freshly laid tar. His voice is deep so he closets it, adopting a "softer" vocal affectation around white folks and at his job. That he was the most alarmed by my looming trip to the hinterlands of Kentucky wasn't surprising. There's a warranted anxiety among African-Americans, and internalized by certain immigrant groups of color, connected to white authority. "Better watch your black a**!" he said as I was headed out the door for Egypt, Ky. – and, it would seem, certain death. Then he laughed without mirth.


African men don’t cook but my father—full bearded, with powerful arms at either side of a taut potbelly—was emancipated from this stereotype, if only partially.

He only cooked on Sundays.

Any other day, he didn’t step into the kitchen unless he was trying to reach our frail second floor balcony. He was a powerful man and the insecure railings squawked in muffled anxiety as he leaned against them while imperiously giving orders to the scurrying workers or kids below.

Sundays started early in my house. Back then my father was the most devout of Catholics, attending mass seven days a week—Sunday being the culmination of his piety. For my father, mass might have been welcome, but for us kids it was insufferably long.

At the beckoning of the reverend father, an interminable ritual of would begin: stand, kneel, sit, stand, sit, kneel, keep kneeling. Keep kneeling. Never mind the kneel rest wasn't cushioned. My nine year old body was so preoccupied with the hard wood pinching my knees through my smart Sunday pants that I routinely fumbled my Hail Marys.


Moses Wey was short and stout, and at the beginning of what would eventually become his signature full-bearded look. He was in his final year of university and for his thesis project he was traveling the hundred odd miles, from Lagos to Ogbomosho.

Lagos was Nigeria’s cosmopolitan capital, where youth was manufactured — Moses was newly minted. Here funk bands blended harmonized folk melodies with James Brown’s primal screeches, producing a dish of heat, sweat and sex, drowned in perspiring beer. Moses was prince of the Lagos party. Leaving Lagos for backwater Ogbomosho though wasn’t exactly how he had wanted to spend this weekend, but his graduation rested on the completion of this project.