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Inviting Discomfort to the Table

How food can be just as provocative as sex, an excerpt from Feed the Resistance

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Chef and writer Tunde Wey is a disrupter: Calm but persistent, Wey has become known for his traveling pop-up dinners where he cooks and serves elaborate meals to groups of diners, black and not, as a way to nourish and coax out uncomfortable but important conversations about race and politics.

Here, in a new essay written for author Julia Turshen’s new book, Feed the Resistance: Recipes and Ideas for Getting Involved, Wey compares dining to the act of having sex: A jumbled mess of pleasure and potential discomfort that can, if done correctly, lead to small moments of peace and catharsis in the form of a physical or emotional release.

(Proceeds from the book’s sale will be donated to the American Civil Liberties Union.)

Food is like sex. Food is also very different from sex, but only their similarities are particularly interesting right now.

So, food is like sex: both self-contained actions. Both are means to ends.

Sex, in the carnal moments of union, ending in an orgasmic clasp and shudders, is at times physical and definite; all that is being explored and satisfied is confined to the particular place and time of the consummation. Food, devoured gently or roughly scarfed, in many iterations is also about satiating basic biological imperatives, the degrees of deliciousness aiding the process.

Sex borrows from lust, which borrows from wonder. And wonder impels travel, peripateticism — one wanders to seek new and exciting things. This is the promiscuous nature of sex, the vow to explore a partner as an intimate way to experience what is otherwise closed off.

Food has a promiscuous, voyeuristic dimension as well. It can be used and misused as a tool to investigate the multifarious realities that exist outside our bubbles. We can traverse temporal, spatial constraints, and transcend corporeal phenomena to enter a place we never knew, the experience of the other. This is food as an object of the spirit, food at its best.

When sex is used as a spiritual object, it fully encompasses its Manichean possibilities of craven and curious. And food, in its most transcendent iteration, is a provocation for more. Once the body has belched, the spirit is summoned and we can engage in deeper intimacy, pillow talk, or dinner talk.

Lest we forget, the best make-up sex leads to actual making up apart from the sex. The act of sex does not a makeup make, unless literally and narrowly where it is makeup, a temporary cover to mask blemishes.

The real moment of glory in sex is the space it can create for intimate and vulnerable connection. It is not the opening act, it sets the stage for the next act, it is the stage on which individual and honest truths, sometimes opposing, meet and do the dance of realization. The stage must be sturdy. The bed should hold up all the lovers in safety.

The food is the stage, and it requires care and consideration in its construction to help fulfill the mission of intimacy. It must be delicious, force the partakers to lick their fingers, even lick off the fingers of the other, draw them closer, nearer to each other. When there is nothing left they are forced to stare into themselves and begin the difficult conversations.

Food is the intermediary, the intercessor, the patron saint of gentle and difficult exploration. We cannot forget this. The work of food then is to quietly exit, fade back into the background, permitting the players at the dinner table an attempt at understanding, at pillow talk.

But food is only the provocation, not a guarantee of change. This provocation doesn’t just summon itself into being. It has to be coaxed out. It is not enough for food to be present, at least three master strokes are required to get the best from a meal, to spur the provocation that we hope eventually leads to transformation.

The first and the Lord of all things is discomfort. We must accept discomfort at the table, not the metaphorical sort, but the honest-to-goodness disconcerting variety. Discomfort produces doubt, it sets its gaze on our certainties and denies them vigorously. Doubt is the precursor to most new revelations and through our revelations we can produce astonishing actions.

We have to sit in the discomfort allowing it to tear us apart, tear us from the inside, poison our prejudices, drown our former selves. At the dinner table, after the beautiful things have been set in front of us, after we have had the first few bites, sipped a few sups, rubbed our bellies in contentment, we must bring the difficult matters to the fore. Without varnish, raw and unflinching, and discuss.

The second stroke? Remember the danger of false empathy!

We are only available to inhabit our own bodies and experiences and our peculiar circumstances prevent us from fully understanding a different perspective. At the dinner table, this sacred space of reconciliation, we must stifle the urge to understand other people’s particular pain through our own perceived pain — they are different and not coequal.

Instead listen. Hold a space for others to be vulnerable, it is their space, do not compete for it with your story.

Third, we must maintain emotional proximateness to what’s happening at the dinner table. In the face of discomfort our instinct is to flee or retreat, avoiding our own reflections.

Sometimes silence is fleeing: it is our perfect barrier, protecting against the onslaught of the break. Other times we flee with words that pull us away from the intimate moment. Afraid to be present in the uncomfortable space, we offer stories from the past or other people’s stories, or both.

At the dinner table, we should be present, only speaking to our experience and preferably in the context of the present.

Let me add a fourth stroke: Work. Work. Work. Work. Work. If discomfort is the beginning of the journey, then emotional labor is the transportive element. We move along this axis of transformation powered only by the emotional work we are willing to do. The more work we do the steadier we go, and when we’re sputtering or stalling, we probably aren’t working. Transformation begins when we understand that we are not the protagonists. That moment when we perceive ourselves as oppressor and victimizer is the instance of true vulnerability, honest empathy, and deep discomfort, because we have ceased to externalize the problem.

The world will seldom change until we change, and we cannot change ourselves if we’re unwilling to be deeply uncomfortable, do the emotional work necessary, and deny ourselves false empathy. If we are to do this difficult work, why not over delicious food and heartening drink?

Excerpted from Feed the Resistance: Recipes and Ideas for Getting Involved by Julia Turshen, courtesy of Chronicle Books.

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