Detroit Series Celebrates the Legacy of Food from Africa to America
For Black History Month, chefs will sell dishes of the African Diaspora in shoebox lunches while also providing aid to struggling Black-owned restaurants and food insecure residents.
For Thanksgiving and Christmas, Detroit nonprofit Make Food Not Waste organized a plan to feed 5,000 residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of restaurants, chefs, and bakers chipped in, with over 100 volunteers helping to pack and distribute food.
One of the distribution sites for the meals was Neighborhood Grocery, owned by Raphael Wright and where chef Jermond Booze had volunteered. When Make Food Not Waste's initiative ended, Wright wanted to do something similar. Joined by chef-owner Ederique Goudia of Gabriel Hall, who had also helped lead the holiday initiative, the three friends brainstormed over group texts until a new idea formed, one that incorporated history, storytelling, and culture. Taste the Diaspora Detroit (TDD)—organized by Wright, Booze, and Goudia—kicked off this week for Black History Month to celebrate Africa's contribution to American cuisine by showcasing the diverse foods of the African Diaspora.
Throughout February, a collective of nearly 20 Black chefs, restaurants, farmers, and producers will pair into teams to create weekly diaspora-themed dishes to honor four separate cuisines: African, Creole, Caribbean, and the American Southern. Chefs will work with ingredients purchased from local Black farmers and artisans.
"There's no better time to pay homage to Blacks in the food industry," says Booze, who will be a participating chef during week two. "For us to be able to create something that promotes the bigger story of how we've impacted the food industry through history, it's like being able to give back and show respect to the people who are in the industry right now, but also to those who helped create our industry."
Each meal will be priced at $25 and sold to the community as a shoebox lunch, a nod to the food boxes used by Black travelers during the Jim Crow Era. Shoeboxes will have a QR code that provides access to the initiative's website, a Black business finder website, and the stories behind the shoebox lunches, as well as other Black food history, like the Black Panther Party's free for children breakfast program. TDD's website will also include video interviews with participating chefs, restaurants, farmers, producers, and local food sovereignty advocate Malik Yakini, of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network.
The organizers' hope to pay homage to the legacy of food from Africa is motivated, in part, due to frustration: that the story of enslaved individuals and their impact on America's culinary landscape is often overlooked. The food traditions of the African diaspora serve as a historical roadmap. Yet this roadmap is at risk of disappearing, and so are the storytellers, as Black communities have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
The organizers aim to sell 400 shoebox lunches during the month, which would enable them to put up to $10,000 back into the hands of eight Black restaurants and chefs. Not only will Black restaurants and farmers get much-needed income, but the organizers also want to provide aid to food insecure residents.
"The food insecurity piece has been an issue in Detroit for the past 20 years," says Booze, who is also the founder of High Vibe Guyz.
The Detroit Food Policy Council's 2019 Metrics Report reported that 39 percent of households in the city were food insecure. But this number was pre-pandemic; the city's food insecurity crisis has only grown. To help address this, 20 percent of meals sold per week will be given to food insecure residents for free.
The pandemic has "added another push, per se, for us to speak to the issues with essential workers, but we're food justice advocates as well," Booze says. "There's no way we can have that conversation about the Black essential worker and not also have that dialogue be tied into the food insecurity inside the city."
Chef Reniel Billups, owner of Flavors of Jamaica, is excited to shine a spotlight on foods of the diaspora. "I just don't feel like Caribbean food gets the respect it should," she says. Her restaurant will serve ital stew over rice and beans with sweet fried plantains.
"We don't treat the food of our culture as if it's special," Billups says. "It's so much more than cooking. There's so many stories behind it, there's so much love for it and consideration in how the dishes are prepared. You don't hear about it on a [large] scale."
Ryan Salter, another participating chef and owner of Breadless, a new health-minded restaurant opening this spring, hopes that the month-long celebration will provide a break from the daily hardships of living through a pandemic.
"Food is a love language," he says. "We want to expose people to new experiences, but to also have a bit of peace of mind from the plate itself. 2020 was a hard year, and it seems like this year will be hard as well, at least going into it. So we just want to give people a break and focus on the experience that they're being presented with during this time."