As America undergoes a long-overdue racial reckoning alongside the global pandemic, organizations around the world have stepped up to offer support for protestors and aid for the Black communities who have been hit hardest by both crises. One such group is Black Feast, a monthly vegan pop-up born in Portland, Oregon that celebrates Black artists and writers through food. Founded by Nigerian vegan chef and artist Salimatu Amabebe in 2016, the organization—now co-curated by creative director Annika Hansteen-Izora—hosts four-course dinners around the country that are centered around Black art.
Since June, Black Feast has been offering "Love Letters to Black Folks"—which consists of free dessert, letters, and care packages—to the Black population in Portland. On Friday, Vogue spoke to Amabebe about their mission to bring sensory, art-inspired culinary experiences and community care to Black people throughout America.
Can you tell me a little bit about the origins of Black Feast?
I started Black Feast in 2016, and we did our first event in 2017. At the time I was an independent chef who had transitioned into mostly doing pop-up dinners: I was doing plant-based Nigerian pop-ups and just because of the ticket price and marketing, most of the people coming were typically wealthier, white folks. A lot of my own community here in Portland, lower-income and Black folks, would not have been able to come to those events. For me, Nigerian food is not really about upscale dining, it's about community and eating with your hands and having an abundance of food—I was trying to navigate the world of fine dining and trying to put Nigerian food into that box, and it was really challenging to feel like I had to fall into a lot of the stereotypes and create this caricature of my own culture.
What were early Black Feast events like?
I have a background in marketing, and I wanted to make sure that when we were talking, the assumed audience was Black, so the tagline for our meals was “This meal was created for you”— with that "you" being a black person. So much of the language we come into contact with, and all these spaces considered neutral, are very much designed for a white audience within the food world, so Black Feast was really about centering a black audience. The first meal we did was based on Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider: I took 4 of those essays and birthed them into four courses, with each course as a culinary interpretation of that text. After doing that, our first event sold out, and every event since then has sold out.
How has Black Feast evolved since?
In 2019, we took on our creative director Annika, who really helped get our branding together. Having someone who’s really able to do admin legwork and also keep us in contact with our community through Instagram and social media is really crucial. In 2019 we started working with local artists who were making work, which was amazing because the artists could be at the dinners—they’d perform or discuss their work, and that became a really important aspect of the dinner.
Many of us are just beginning to actively confront the problems contained within the food industry—did you set out for Black Feast to be a safe haven away from those problems?
I’ve worked in food industry for now over a decade, and I always thought kitchens had to be run a certain way, and I thought the price you pay for doing this work is that you basically get abused at your job. It's really hard work, it’s demanding, and it doesn’t pay very well, but it’s all of those aspects plus misogyny, racism, and transphobia within the kitchen. I went into it knowing that, so I didn’t really have expectations of anything else: for me, Black Feast was about trying to figure out another way to cook, another way to work as a chef. Black Feast is just as much about the people who are a part of it as the people coming to the dinners, and it's really important to me that we’re all making a living wage and then some: to pay Black people for their work, to have Black people on my staff and make sure they get to take breaks and enjoy the food and enjoy being there, is really important.
How was the "Love Letters to Black Folks" initiative born?
When all the protests were getting active, we started doing Love Letters because Annika and I felt really overwhelmed. We were trying to figure out what community care work would look like, and we came up with an idea: Annika would write these poems to Black folks and I would make a dessert. We had flower donations, we set up a takeout window—it was free, so people would come and pick up dessert and a care package in Berkeley [where Amabebe was recently completing a residency.] I just got back to Portland and hit the ground running; we’ve done two weekends out of five so far.
What has it been like to provide direct care to Black Portlanders at such a trying time?
It’s been incredible! We have companies offering us products, so we’re able to give people candles, skincare products, et cetera. A cafe offered to let us use their space on weekends when they’re not in operation, so we have a commercial kitchen and do a pick-up window on Sundays. I think something I’ve recognized is how important it is to make that type of care and support ongoing, because it takes a lot of trust for people to receive it. I love to offer people all sorts of things, but when it comes to being able to receive, it’s very difficult, and I think as Black people we often feel like we need to be at the height of suffering in order to be deserving of this type of care. Right now, part of my job is encouraging people to come and not feel the need to reciprocate through donations or anything else: to say, 'This is care, and you deserve it.'
How can people best support Black Feast and the work you're doing (in addition to donating funds by Venmoing or Cashapp-ing @Blackfeast)?
Black Feast events are—with the exception of Love Letters—open to everyone. They’re sliding scale for POC and Black folks, and part of that is about recognizing the way that money can also be something that we radicalize. Your politics have to be far-reaching: it’s not enough to have an “inclusion statement” or a “We see you,” which I think a lot of businesses are having to contend with right now. Black Feast has been around for several years now, and now I think we’re getting even more recognition at this moment because our entire business model is built on equity and the foundational belief that we do understand these systems of oppression that have existed in all of our lives. It’s really important to have oppressed groups of people really involved in the building of organizations and businesses, because we all have our individual blind spots that we don’t see due to our individual experiences.