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.

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