WHO OWNS SOUTHERN FOOD? (THE OXFORD AMERICAN. June 3, 2016)

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.