Waiting in line for food in Portland, Oregon, isn’t an unusual experience. But being surrounded by Black faces that reflect your identity is absolutely out of the ordinary in the whitest city in America. It’s a phenomenon, though, that people queuing up for Love Letters to Black Folks can finally experience. Love Letters is a special event run by Black Feast, a Portland-based pop-up dinner collective that describes itself as “a creation of Black narrative and Black lineage that brings guests together to share an intimate and sensory meal.” The Love Letters also offer an entry into a much-needed Black space that prioritizes the healing and nurturing of Black folks — through the provision of complimentary desserts centered around Black joy.
Despite the masks worn for protection from COVID-19 hiding people’s smiles, the joy in the space is abundantly clear. The only prerequisite for receiving a “Love Letter” care package is to identify as Black. The package is provided in a brown paper bag printed with the Black Feast logo; a bundle of fresh flowers is attached to the dessert box, and inside the care package are miscellaneous items associated with self-care. Some people get flower essences or CBD skin care products, and others find other items provided to aid in wellness and care for Black folks; local restaurants and community members donate money, space, time, ingredients and more to help facilitate the initiative. For immunocompromised recipients, delivery is available.
The Love Letters effort, which wrapped this past weekend, was co-founded by Black Feast founder Salimatu Amabebe, who paused to identify what their role within a social justice movement would be after the uprising of protests throughout the country.
“Salimatu thought of this concept, and it was really beautiful because it was thinking about how we can show up for our people in a space that comes from a space of joy and a space of healing and being seen,” says creative director Annika Hansteen-Izora, who partnered with Amabebe on the project. “I feel like a lot of movement and conversation that we’re seeing around Black lives has stemmed from Black death. People have only started to care about Black people when it’s due to our death. In this space, we’re thinking about what it looks like if we create a space that is actually coming from Black joy, Black art, and being seen in that way.”
Amabebe started Black Feast in 2016 as a way to create visibility and space for Black folks and foods in an industry that doesn’t often pay homage to African cuisine. Amabebe, who is of Nigerian-American descent, originally started their career as a visual artist. They moved to New York City the summer after graduating college to work in various art galleries, and eventually found their way to making food professionally. “I kind of jumped into the deep end,” Amabebe says.
They worked their way from line cook to head chef, alternating between the art world and culinary culture. It was a residency overseas that finally married their passions for food and art. “I got this artist residency in Berlin which focused on food, art, and ecology, and I met at least a dozen other chefs, artists, makers, and people who were combining those worlds,” they say. “That opened up a lot of possibilities for me. When I came to Portland, I had plans to do this work and to create these events that really combine food and art together.”
Black Feast started in Portland and has since traveled to Berkeley, the Bay Area, and back to New York City. The popular pop-up has included guest chefs like Tara Thomas, who collaborated on a dinner that featured the music of Madison McFerrin, with courses like a black-tea-soaked tofu frittata, papaya uda pepper jelly, and fried cornflakes and asparagus tips (the course was called “Know You Better,” after McFerrin’s song). A dinner in May, titled “As Bright as the Living Body,” celebrated the work of Oakland-based artist and storyteller Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo — it offered free three-course meals for pickup to Black guests, featuring dishes like a black-eyed pea tomato stew, with non-Black people supporting the project with $30 donations. Each meal came tidily wrapped in a print of one of Branfman-Verissimo’s works.
The food and art event plans to continue its tradition of finding inspiration in art, identifying the themes that define an artistic work in order to identify a taste or flavor that will define the menu concept. “It’s a very vague and imprecise practice that relies a lot on intuition,” Amabebe says. “And I think that although it’s a bit different [than the usual approach], it’s a very similar idea of what feels nourishing right now and what’s exciting to me.”
Hansteen-Izora and Amabebe met in 2019 at one of the Black Feast pop-up events, and according to the two artists, the response to Love Letters, which launched on July 26, has been “beautiful.” They light up as they describe the testimonials from Black people throughout the whitest city in America stating that they feel seen like never before, thanks to the nurturing and loving intention that defined the project.
Depending on what resources are needed for the event, the process of procuring supplies was similar to mutual aid efforts, which have flourished during the pandemic. And as at the Black Feast dinners, each menu was vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, and without cane sugar. Amabebe cooked up delicacies like a red palm fruit cheesecake, with cornflake crust and lime cashew cream, and strawberry shortcake with fig leaf cream and hazelnut truffle. After coming up with a unique concept for each week’s individual dessert, they’d spend Saturdays and Sundays prepping over 100 complimentary desserts at Sweedeedee, a Portland pie shop that offered its space for the event.
With Love Letters wrapped, the Pisces (Hansteen-Izora) and Virgo (Amabebe) duo say that their next Black Feast event may resume as early as September, but they don’t provide an exact location. “I think we will do at least one event in September, but we haven’t quite gotten that far,” Amabebe says. Those who want to keep up with Amabebe can follow @Black.Feast on Instagram or donate to their Cash App @Black Feast.
Jagger Blaec is a Portland-based journalist. She can be found writing about entertainment, wellness, intersectional feminism, sex, food, and Shia LaBeouf. Celeste Noche is a food, travel, and portrait photographer based between Portland, Oregon and San Francisco.