Thursday, November 24, 2011

Aster’s Ethiopian Restaurant: Gateway to Community

by Jonathan Spindel
    I had known about Aster’s Ethiopian Restaurant for years, but I never went inside until I started working on a Foodways project on Austin’s Ethiopian community. I knew nothing about Austin’s Ethiopians but I thought Aster’s was a good place to begin. I went to try the food (a truly singular cuisine deserving of its own review -- stay tuned) and made a plan to meet the owners for an interview the following week. When I returned, the owners were out running errands, but their daughter Judy mentioned an upcoming Ethiopian Children’s Cultural Day at the Ethiopian Evangelical Church, an event I couldn’t miss. So began my introduction to one of the warmest, most welcoming communities I’ve ever known.
      I arrived at the church in the middle of the sunny afternoon. Church members in full Ethiopian garb welcomed the visitors. Dozens of children played in the open grassy lawn as the church filled with friendly faces. When the visitors were settled, the organizers welcomed everybody, then the pastor offered a prayer of thanks for the auspicious occasion. Then the children’s choir sang traditional songs and led the audience in a sing-along. 
      Visitors moved between several stations spread about the building. Inside the main hall, visitors learned about Ethiopian history and wildlife, browsed traditional handcrafts and beautiful garments, and learned Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. I made a bee-line for the coffee ceremony, where two women greeted me with a hot cup of the best homemade brew I’ve ever tasted. This coffee is prepared entirely by hand, even the roasting process. The coffee is strong yet subtle, there is no bitterness at all. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee -- it’s no wonder they’ve perfected the method of preparation. (Note: coffee connoisseurs can taste this traditional brew at Aster’s.)
       As I savored my coffee, one church member asked me, “How many kids do you have?” “None,” I said, taken aback. (This event is meant for children, particularly Ethiopian adopted children of American families. The children are encouraged to access their heritage and preserve their customs, all while forming community.) I was only there to observe, and enjoy the celebration. I explained my Texas Folklife project. I suddenly felt self-conscious of this fact. “Welcome,” she said, “We’re so glad you came. God bless you.” All my anxiety evaporated. I was among new friends.
      I understood the deeper purpose of the event: To develop and perpetuate individual heritage, but also to share culture with new communities, thus promoting true human connections and cross-cultural understanding.
 When you celebrate Thanksgiving, remember to cherish your heritage while learning new customs as well. I’m looking forward to my dinner -- we’re going to have turkey mole, barbecue brisket and maple-glazed trout, a feast of culture and cuisine with friends and family I love. So here is my Thanksgiving wish for you: May you share this day with your family, friends and neighbors; reflect on your fortunes and bounties; celebrate tradition and community, however they may manifest.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

TXF Board travels to the Rio Grande Valley

by Nancy Bless
Our board chairman, Moira Porter and board member Susan Morehead joined Cristina Balli and me on an action packed, weekend trip to the tip of Texas. We took some back roads from Austin, sampling BBQ (Luling), bread pudding (Beeville) and cabrito (McAllen) along the way-- with church spires and court house cupolas pointing our way to historic town squares. Somewhere around Falfurrias the heat, wind, palm trees and cactus let you know you are entering Tejas.

Mark with his work
Saturday began in downtown Brownsville at Galeria 409, housed in a 158 year old building right across the street from the border wall and a US/Mexico crossing point. The wall, at least in this section, is like a wrought iron fence, albeit 20 feet tall. Galeria 409's owner, the artist Mark Clark, produced an "Art Against the Wall" exhibit--at the wall--that featured a 30 foot bamboo and reed ladder studded with thorns, and piñatas in the forms of life sized border patrol agents, one of whom is looking through a pair of (piñata) binoculars. 
Bottom to top: Susan Morehead, Moira Porter, Mark Clark

Mark hosted a lunch at the gallery for us to meet with University of Texas Brownsville History Professor Manuel Medrano and businesswoman and cultural activist Bitty Truan to talk about Texas Folklife and our mutual interests in preservation and promotion of traditional expressions in the Valley. There was lots to discuss as each has tremendous passion for regional culture and history. Dr. Medrano will be working closely with us on "A Place at the Table," contributing essays on the Taquerias of Southmost and on the area's struggling fishing and shrimping industry.

And of course--the best of all is getting to meet artists and see some great art! Mark Clark's own work was a revelation: intense, contemporary interpretations of Mayan mythology filtered through a somewhat wry and loaded (as in thinking about many things) imagination. Bitty, whose late husband George Truan was an artist, has a beautiful home on a Resaca filled with Mexican and Mexican American art. We wish you could have seen it all!

More posts on our Valley coming soon; stay tuned!