Over the next four weeks, Taste the Diaspora Detroit aims to celebrate African food contributions to American cuisine in collaboration with nearly 20 local chefs, farmers, and food producers. The weekly shoebox lunches highlight Black culture and the foods of the African diaspora, while helping to support local chefs and food workers hard hit by the pandemic. Lunches will also be donated each week throughout February to food insecure people living in Detroit.
Raphael Wright (Urban Plug, Neighborhood Grocery), Jermond Booze (High Vibe Guys, Upper Crust LLC), and Ederique Goudia (Gabriel Hall, In the Business of Food) were part of an effort that helped feed 5,000 Detroiters over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays last year. Their collective success gave Goudia an idea: Could they create boxed meals to celebrate Black History Month in February? Together the trio launched Taste the Diaspora late last month which serves three purposes: to honor Black history; to assist Black-owned businesses struggling during the health crisis; and to help feed Detroit’s food insecure communities.
Wright, Booze, and Goudia sold out of the 400 meals planned for the inaugural Taste the Diaspora two days after announcing their effort in January. For local food entrepreneurs, this is manna during a pandemic that has shuttered or crippled many Detroit businesses. It’s estimated that 41 percent of the country’s Black-owned businesses have closed due to the financial crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Selling out of these boxed meals so quickly signals an interest in Black cuisine. “This isn’t typically something you see during Black History Month,” says Wright. “We generally celebrate everything but our food and our contributions to American cuisine.”
Each week features meals created by Black chefs and Black-owned restaurants using ingredients and produce from Black food producers and farmers within Detroit, resulting in themed lunches meant to produce a culinary trip around the African diaspora. The first week takes people to East Africa with petit pois prepared by Baobab Fare and red red with plantains and jollof rice from chef and farmer Azeezah Ford. Over the course of the next three weeks, Taste the Diaspora explores Black cuisine from Louisiana’s Creole country, the Caribbean, and the American South.
Those who ordered the $25 boxed lunches pick up their meals on Friday afternoons at Jerry Ann Hebron’s Oakland Avenue Urban Farm in the North End. Lunch comes with a side of history and community service. A QR code on the box sends people to a website filled with Black businesses, the stories behind the food served, and additional snippets of Black culinary history.
The shoebox lunch itself is rooted in Black history. During the Jim Crow era, Black families traveling in the segregated South by car or train had to follow rules, including only making light bathroom stops and eating their lunches in the car. Families often packed lunches in shoeboxes with foods that would keep for long periods of time, like fried chicken, ham sandwiches, slices of cake, and some fresh fruit.
“You often hear about Mexican, Asian, Polish food,” says Hebron of Taste the Diaspora. “But I think we created meals that jarred people’s memories and made them say, ‘I want to support this.’ Even I missed out on the sales for the first three lunches!”
During the pandemic, Hebron’s 3.5-acre farm served as a reservoir for restaurants and chefs who needed to empty restaurant freezers and shelves of uneaten perishable foods. Between March and May, Hebron says she and her team of five rerouted that food to 25,000 Detroit residents in need — delivering to shelters, nursing homes, and even going door to door to feed neighbors.
Now she’s shifting gears again, preparing for people to pick up Taste the Diaspora meals at Oakland Avenue Urban Farm.
Revenue generated from the February lunches provides a much needed boost to Detroit’s Black restaurants and farmers, Wright says. It also allows for the distribution of 100 free lunch boxes to people in need around Detroit.
With the first Taste the Diaspora sold out and well underway, Wright, Booze, and Goudia can now turn their attention to planning future events, including smaller initiatives throughout the winter and spring and a larger effort for Juneteenth in June. Wright says he hopes the meal events and mission behind Taste the Diaspora Detroit expands to other cities across the country, especially in cities throughout the South with histories tied to Black cuisine.
Despite meals being sold out this month, people can still donate to Taste the Diaspora online. All donations collected go toward funding upcoming events and furthers the mission behind the initiative.
February Taste the Diaspora shoebox lunches
Week One — East Africa (home continent)
—Petit pois prepared by Baobab Fare+
—Red red with plantains and jollof rice prepared by chef and farmer Azeezah Ford
Week Two — Creole
—Gumbo z’herbes over garlic grit cakes prepared by Gabriel Hall
—Jambalaya with smoked turkey and andouille or vegan jambalaya with smoked mushrooms and blackened potatoes prepared by chef Jermond Booze
Week Three — Caribbean
—Ital stew over rice and beans with sweet fried plantains, prepared by Flavors of Jamaica
—Bajan brown stewed chicken (or tofu) with plantain potato mash, prepared by chef Ryan Eli Salter
*Dishes feature products from Deeply Rooted Produce and Uncorked Spices
Week Four — Southern United States
—Sweet potato and corn succotash with cornbread, prepared by Savannah Blue
—Black-eyed pea masala with jeera rice, prepared by Relish Catering
*Dishes feature products from Nurturing Our Seeds Farm, Uncorked Spices, and Oakland Avenue Urban Farm