How food and culture can spice up a community
A steaming cup of traditional Ethiopian tea makes its way through the small, nine-table restaurant to the table of an eagerly waiting customer. The delicate porcelain cup and saucer on which it is served are colorfully painted with the story of Queen Sheba and King Solomon – a personal touch that many customers notice and appreciate. But what most people don’t know is that all the chinaware were gifts from an appreciative customer, just like the pale blue silk scarf draped over one of the paintings and the traditionally woven flour sifters hanging on the wall. These three items are just a sample of the gifts customers give Meklit Fikre, the chef and owner of Addis Ethiopian Cuisine, as thanks for the food she cooks for the Eugene and Springfield communities.
“One lady loved the food so much she took off her earrings and just gave them to me,” Fikre said with a chuckle.
However, for many people, like Leah Rosin, it’s not only the food that makes Addis special, but the intimate family feel of the restaurant and the sense of community that Fikre helps foster.
“There’s a personal connection as soon as you walk through the door and you see her in the kitchen,” Rosin said. “It’s like being in someone’s kitchen, and you want to support that.”
Rosin was the ringleader of the campaign to bring an Ethiopian restaurant back to the city and the creator behind the Facebook group Ethiopian in Eugene. She and other members of the group were even prepared to rent a bus and drive up to Portland to convince one of the Ethiopian restaurants there to expand to Eugene.
Luckily, they didn’t have to resort to that.
Fikre answered their prayers before the two-hour trek north was made, and the community couldn’t have been more thrilled. The outpouring of support was so strong that on opening night, Fikre ran out of food, an occurrence which she said has happened several times since. In fact, her restaurant has become so popular that some people will wait for more than an hour just to get a bite of her food.
“Everybody tells me they’re happy that we’re here,” Fikre said. “I mean I have people who come in two to three times a week, and we’re only open four days!”
It’s not hard to see – or smell– why people are eager to support Fikre and her restaurant. Upon walking through the doors, the strong scent of Ethiopian spices tickles the nose. Fikre greets her customers while working hard in the kitchen, with sleeves rolled up, often cooking up an order of one of her popular wots, an Ethiopian type of stew. On most Fridays, restaurant goers don’t need to look further than the front room to be warmly invited into the restaurant as if they’re old friends or family as Fikre’s 7-year-old daughter helps seat them and hand out menus.
The act and intimacy of eating Ethiopian cuisine, which is eaten from a communal plate using only your hands, further enhances the close, intimate experience, making it more personal and creating a deeper connection between the people sharing in the dining experience.
According to Stephen Wooten, the director of the food studies program at the University of Oregon, food is one of the few things that anyone and everyone can come together to share.
“Food is inviting because everybody’s got experiences with it,” Wooten said. “whether it’s family, friends or enemies – the act of eating together can help transcend boundaries.”
Fikre’s level of commitment to channeling the inviting nature of food and the sense of togetherness that accompanies sharing a meal shows. From her detailed personal touches like the hand-stitched table cloths with crosses, representing Fikre’s Orthodox Christian beliefs, to her use of direct-from-Ethiopia spices – such as the essential berbere spice – she goes to great lengths to make sure that the community has a warm, meaningful dining experience.
Before she was able to provide this space for the community to physically come together and sit down to share a meal together, Fikre ran a once-a-week, to-go order business from a rented kitchen in Eugene. The idea for the restaurant didn’t come to her right away; it wasn’t until after Fikre had her daughter and was working as a stay-at-home mom that she started thinking about opening her own business.
“I had a hard time getting employment when I first moved here, and I wanted to start my own business,” Fikre said. “Food was the main thing I wanted to do because I enjoy cooking.”
Fikre moved to Eugene with her husband in 2006, six years after coming to the United States on a college scholarship to the University of Wyoming, where she eventually met her husband and earned a degree in business management in 2004. She said her business degree sparked her interest in starting a business of her own, but it was her childhood that brought the focus on food.
Some of Fikre’s fondest childhood memories revolve around food, even though she admits it took her several years to fully enjoy the act of cooking itself. Growing up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, she helped in her aunt’s restaurant, serving, prepping and doing whatever else they needed assistance with. Before opening her own restaurant, Fikre made sure to get all of her aunt’s recipes – most of which had been passed down through generations – in order to include them on her own menu.
Now, when people use their hands to dig into the colorfully spiced wots on the plate in front of them, they’re scooping up a little piece of Fikre’s history, whether they know it or not. Fikre says that being able to share her culture with the community and to have it so well received, is what makes everything worth it, even the half-hour drive to and from the restaurant every day.
“This business is hard, but I really enjoy it,” Fikre said. “It’s so nice to see people when they come back in, and they all love the food. That is what keeps me going.”