A team of regional chefs and entrepreneurs is celebrating the cuisines of the African diaspora this month with a unique, boxed-lunch experience called Taste the Diaspora Detroit, which traces the foods' history and significant impact on American cooking and culture.
Each week, the project honors a different culture and cuisine, following the paths of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the African people who were brought against their will to the Americas, explains co-founder Jermond Booze. The menu moves from African cuisine to Creole, Caribbean, and, finally, in Week Four, Southern fare.
Each cuisine theme also highlights the work of local Black chefs, restaurants, farmers, and business owners. Booze says the project aims to recognize the challenges Black food industry workers are facing, citing the fact that Black-owned businesses in particular have struggled to stay afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This particular project gave us the opportunity to create a platform to spotlight those people, to celebrate those people, and also helped put money inside of their pockets as well,” he says.
Customers pre-order online and then pick up the meals curbside in a shoebox lunch — a reference to the shoeboxes in which Black Americans packed lunches during the Jim Crow era, because stopping in restaurants while traveling was unsafe or not allowed. When the Taste the Diaspora Detroit founders first developed the concept of the unique dining experience, they weren’t quite sure what to expect in terms of response. But co-founder Raphael Wright says they sold out within a few days of launching the initiative.
“People plugged all the way in,” Wright says. “We did not expect that, but 400 boxes flew out of the digital shelves. And that’s when we knew we had something. People really took to the concept, people really gravitated towards the mission. And I think that that drove sales to sell the way that they did.”
The shoebox lunches come with a QR code that connects diners with background information about the cuisine, as well as a Black History Month playlist, curated by Wright, to accompany the meal.
“One of the things we talked about over and over was creating this full, sensory experience,” says Booze.
Chef Ryan Eli Salter, who created the hospitality company Salt + Ko and offers cooking lessons and catering online through the website The Bachelor Chef, is a featured chef for the third week of the Taste the Diaspora Detroit experience. He's focusing on Caribbean cuisine. He says he drew on memories of food from his childhood when he was planning his flavorful dish for Week Three: Bajan brown stewed chicken or tofu, with plantain potato mash.
“I thought about my time as a kid living in Barbados, and trying to think of the food that I loved so much. As a kid, you know, we all want the high fructose corn syrup, we want the McDonald's, and we want the fatty foods,” Salter says. “But the one thing I did like that was not of that variety was this brown stewed chicken.”
Booze explains that each week’s curated meals convey culture and connection, but they also communicate a complicated history.
“The foundation for the majority of these dishes are from African slaves, who were brought to this country to build it for other people,” Booze says. “And they are leaving their legacy through their food, which we are humbly telling as we prepare these dishes each week.”
Wright says the founders aim to expand the meal experience beyond Black History Month — and maybe even beyond Detroit.
“Doing a project in February is a good thing. But does it do justice to the history? Does it do justice to Black chefs, restaurants, et cetera? I don't think so,” he says. “So us making this a regular thing, or a thing that can be continued after Black History Month, is definitely possible and definitely in the works.”
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Nell Ovitt.