Please Try This at Home

Local Cookbooks Bring Ethnic Food Traditions to You

Angela Shelf Medearis

photograph by John Anderson

For many of us, holiday celebrations are the only meals where we share and preserve our family food traditions. Food and cooking are ties that should bind us to our land, our families, and our heritage. As life changes and families disperse, those precious traditions can easily be lost, and when they're gone, so is some cultural sense of who we are. Two Austin authors from very diverse backgrounds have spent the last few years honoring their family culinary traditions by researching and recording the dishes that help to define their cultural backgrounds. Successful children's book author Angela Shelf Medearis and respected Austin chef Miguel Ravago have new books out that preserve and celebrate the home cooking of their respective ethnic heritages. Reading and cooking from these two new cookbooks has renewed my respect for the dynamic culinary contributions African-American and Mexican-American cooks bring to the melting pot of the American table.
Angela Shelf Medearis

Legal secretary turned author Angela Shelf Medearis writes in a small office in her Southwest Austin home. It's jam-packed with books, family pictures, memorabilia, and framed covers of several of her 65 popular children's books. While she continues to write children's books, the busy author has expanded her work area to include the kitchen and has just published her third cookbook, Ideas for Entertaining From the African-American Kitchen (Dutton, $27.95 hard). "My life revolves around my home," she explains, "family, kids, reading, cooking. One of the main reasons I became a writer is so that I could work at home." Cookbooks were just the natural progression in Angela's career, and the focus of her books is to record, preserve, and share the rich, varied African-American culinary traditions. "The research for this book started in my mother's kitchen," she recalls. "My sister and I were both asking her to write down some of her holiday recipes we love." That kernel of an idea blossomed into a practical guide for creating holiday celebrations every month of the year.

The book opens with a chapter on party planning tips, then devotes successive chapters to festivities appropriate for each month of the year. Not all the holidays discussed are distinctly African-American, but Medearis offers suggestions and recipes to infuse other holidays with an Afrocentric flair. January features a menu for a Martin Luther King Day celebration suggested by a memoir by Coretta Scott King, and the Sister Rejuvenation Brunch in March encourages the hostess to set up some pampering spa-like activities to be enjoyed along with the Sunrise Punch and fruit-stuffed apples. June brings a Jumping the Broom rehearsal dinner and for December, there's a Kwanzaa Karamu Feast with Soul Food Dip and West African Cous-Cous.

photograph by John Anderson

While some of Medearis' recipe research was done in the kitchens of family members, she's also become an expert at scouring libraries for historical texts and old cookbooks featuring African, Caribbean, or African-American heirloom recipes. "In old Southern cookbooks, I learned to look for references to the domestic help," she recalls, "like `Mrs. Walker's girl Sally made a particular dish.'" Her process for each book is to assemble many more recipes that she can possibly use, cull through them several times, then test the most likely candidates with her sister and her best girlfriends. Medearis takes issue with the Publisher's Weekly review that described her recipes as simplistic, preferring to think of them as accessible. "These recipes represent the way I cook, the way most busy women cook. They aren't complicated and don't require hours of shopping or ordering ingredients through the mail. I wanted people to be able to get the cooking done and still have time to enjoy the party," she says emphatically.

The day of our interview, the Medearis home was a beehive of activity. Angela and her husband Michael are collaborating on a series of books on African-American arts for young adults, and he has already completed much of the work for her next cookbook project on vegetarian dishes for the African-American kitchen. There were calls for her company, Diva Productions, which markets Angela's story time videos for children of all ages, as well as the cooking video featuring Angela and her sister entitled Kitchen Divas. She was planning appearances at elementary schools and book fairs, and checking the dates for the continuing tour to promote the new cookbook. Books sell really well at personal appearances, she assures me. "After they taste my mother's Raisin Pecan Pie, they always buy the book," she says with pride. Angela Shelf Medearis will appear at Book People on Sunday, December 7, at 5pm. Treat yourself to a conversation with this talented dynamo. Her enthusiasm and laughter are infectious, and her mother's pie is irresistible.

Miguel Ravago

When Seattle-based culinary tour guide Marilyn Tausend needed a co-author to assist with her cookbook project, nationally known Austin chef Miguel Ravago was the natural choice. Who better to help Tausend chronicle the home cooking of Mexican-American immigrant families than a second-generation Mexican-American chef? The two longtime friends teamed up to produce Cocina de la Familia (Simon & Schuster, $27.50 hard), a collection of authentic recipes with roots in an ancient New World culture that flourishes in home kitchens in America.

For three years, the co-authors traveled the country, eating with Mexican-American families in the Pacific Northwest, California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Florida. "We found most of them through our contacts in the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals)," Ravago recalls. "Someone would refer us to a best friend or an aunt or cousin known for being a great cook. We met the most interesting people." Once the research was done, chef Ravago's task was to test the recipes in his Austin home kitchen to make sure they worked and duplicated the flavors stored in his taste memory. He and Tausend stayed in contact by phone and fax, discussing which recipes worked and making necessary adjustments.

Their completed work is a fascinating compendium of family treasures, a tribute to the cooks who have adapted the dishes to accommodate changes in lifestyle and geography. The recipes appear with names in Spanish and English, plus the names of the American city and state where they are prepared today along with the area of Mexico from which the families emigrated. Tausend's head notes are filled with anecdotes about the generous cooks who shared their family heirlooms, and she often describes how the recipes have changed over time and distance from their origins in Mexico.

Miguel Ravago
photograph by John Anderson

Ravago's own family recipes are well represented in the book. He writes proudly of his Arizona childhood and times spent in the kitchen with his grandmother, Guadalupe Velasquez, and his mother, Amelia Galbraith. Both excellent cooks shared their love of cooking with Miguel, and he credits much of his success to their influence and guidance. "My wonderful grandmother taught me respect for my heritage and this great cuisine," he says. "Without her, I would never have become a chef!" Readers can try Mrs. Galbraith's Polvorones (cinnamon sugar cookies) from Phoenix by way of Sonora or the Frijoles Maneados (puréed pinto beans with cheese and ancho chiles), another dish with its roots in dairy-rich Sonora. Ravago's loyal fans who have followed him to Bertram's will recognize the recipe for Vuelva a la Vida (literally, "return to life"), a splendid seafood dish on the restaurant's appetizer menu which can be traced to Malinalco, Mexico.

For the next few months, chef Miguel Ravago will be busy juggling the local and regional promotion of the new cookbook with his duties as Executive Chef at Bertram's restaurant. He'll pop up at booksignings and cooking demonstrations, and there's talk of an appearance on Good Morning America. His promotion schedule will be even heavier next year when Simon & Schuster releases the Spanish version of Cocina de la Familia. "Because I'm bilingual, I'll be doing all the interviews with Spanish-language radio and TV," he explains. As if that weren't enough work, his next cookbook is already in the works. However, he'll be behind the buffet at Bertram's every Sunday, greeting customers and sharing his knowledge of the cuisine of his heritage in a manner that would make his grandmother proud.

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