Food blogger Eden Hagos has a fever for flavour that goes way back: Her grandparents owned a café and spice market in East Africa, and her parents opened one of the first Ethiopian restaurants in Windsor, Ont., where she was born and raised. Hagos now lives in Toronto, and last year started Black Foodie, a blog and event series that spotlights African, Caribbean and Southern U.S. cuisines and food cultures.
Why did you start Black Foodie?
I’ve always been surrounded by people who are really passionate about food, talented home cooks and food entrepreneurs. But it was a negative experience I had while dining out for my birthday last year that really got me thinking about food and race more critically. I was with a group of friends, all black women, and it was clear from the restaurant staff’s actions and words that we weren’t welcomed. I ended up leaving the restaurant that night, embarrassed, upset and feeling threatened.
An experience like that really sticks with you. I started wondering about the ways in which black people experience the food world differently and I began reflecting on my own dining choices. I realized that I hadn’t even thought to celebrate at an African or Caribbean restaurant. From then on, I sought to explore the food world from a uniquely black lens.
In your travels, what have you noticed about black restaurants and black food culture?
There are a lot of creative and talented black chefs, and people who might not be formally trained, creating their own space. They may not have the resources to open a restaurant, but they’re doing these cool pop-up events.
Can you give me an example?
I recently went to a dinner in Detroit, part of a dinner series across the United States exploring blackness held by Tunde Wey, a Nigerian chef. Detroit has gone through a lot. And here’s someone who’s Nigerian, who grew up outside of that context, but had lived in Detroit for a while, and was adding their own spin while presenting Nigerian food such as dodo and ayamase (fried plantain with green bell pepper and locust-bean sauce), jollof rice (rice cooked in a spiced tomato sauce) and frejon (a black-bean coconut pudding).
The most interesting part of this dinner was how intentional Tunde was in creating a space for dialogue. Aaron Foley, a local author, helped lead the conversation. It naturally shifted from issues of racism, tokenism, gentrification, the experiences of newcomers and Detroit’s changing landscape. There is a narrative of Detroit having been deserted and now is being saved by young white people from outside the community. Guests shared how the press often focuses on these success stories of entrepreneurs from outside the community rather than celebrating black Detroiters. This is demonstrated even in the types of restaurants that receive attention.
Why do you think foodie culture is so popular and necessary right now?
Your food carries so much of your history and culture, and it often signifies a certain celebration. Now, I feel people are more interested in what’s beyond the plate. Who made it? Why did they make it? Who did the recipe get passed down from? And with Black Foodie, I want to show that it’s never just a neutral experience.
When I go out to eat, I’m still a black woman going out to eat. My identity shapes the way I experience food and it affects the way my cultural foods are perceived. I think many immigrant kids can relate to having had lunches that were looked down on and found to be strange. But now you’ll find hipsters putting their own spin on these foods and getting rave reviews or being sought out as experts. Food is political. But food also brings us together and lets us tell our stories.
You invited your online audience to dinner. What was that like?
In October, 2015, I held an event in Toronto called Injera + Chill. This celebrated East African food in a contemporary and fun way that created conversation within the diaspora. I noticed that many of the conversations about East African food were being led by people who weren’t from the community. But I was interested in knowing what the conversation was amongst us: Almost every young East African in the room could relate to the inside jokes we shared about growing up and leaving the home smelling like Ethiopian spices, which are amazing, but do have a strong smell. There were also people who weren’t East African but had their own interesting stories about Ethiopian food. It was really successful – people were really excited to talk about their experiences.
And you’ve taken it on the road since then?
People across North America and outside of North America started hitting me up saying “Hey, what’s that? Are you going to bring it here?” So I decided to take it with me wherever I went. I took it to Atlanta and got a unique African-American perspective: A guest shared how the experience of eating Ethiopian food brought him closer to the people he dined with. For him, there was an element of trust you had to have, that communal process of sharing a platter created a richer experience. Later, I went to London, England. That was pretty big for me – seeing people get excited all over the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.