When we do things with good intent it will not disappear; it will only ripple into greater things. This is exactly what the organizers of the recent “Taste of Thanksgiving Sides” are planning for the Austin Cultural Center. Their first event took place Nov. 11 at 5200 W. Chicago Ave., at the Citizens Landmark Preservation building, owned by John Young, proprietor of Potpourri Furniture.
Austin Weekly News columnist Arlene Jones was instrumental in bringing this event about. She conceived the idea and, like a “Mother Hen,” was all nerves on Saturday. Also a bundle of nerves was the center’s director, Earline Ruffin. Jones and Ruffin were on hand to greet everyone as they entered the building and for an admission fee of only one dollar, everyone was treated like $100 ticket holders.
There was no need for butterflies because the community response was overwhelming.
“We got started because the owner of this building had an idea to bring forth a culture center,” Jones said, “and Dr. Margaret Burroughs [founder of DuSable Museum] came on board and said we could do this, because I had no idea how to do a culture center. So I listened to my elder with her wisdom, and if she said it could work, I had to believe it. So the idea for this ‘Taste’ came up because we have blocks with some of the best cooks in the world, but they can’t market themselves to their clientele because they don’t have the money for the location. So this is just like those other ‘tastes’ they have around town-Real Men Cook, for example. It’s an opportunity for us to try food and specialties cooked by other black people and so we can support those businesses. That is the most important thing.”
AWN: Who are some of the people involved in this effort?
Jones: There is John Young, the owner of the building; Earline Ruffin, who is the executive director; and then we have a long list of people from the community who are involved in this. We’re looking for others to come join us because we are not going to be static. The only limitations we have is how we deliver ourselves.
AWN: When and where do you meet?
Jones: Right now we don’t have a defined meeting date, but I would suggest people call the Cultural Center at 773/378-0212 and talk with Earline Ruffin and find out when she’s going to schedule the next meeting. People can come out with their ideas as to what we should do.
AWN: How many vendors are here today?
Jones: We have about 25 chefs and entrepreneurs. They are trying to get started. They need to get their product to market, and we’re offering them that opportunity [list of vendors follows].
AWN: How did you get the word out about this event?
Jones: Primarily because of the Austin Weekly News. we did radio interviews on Garfield Majors’ show (1490 AM), Bronzeville.com, and we were on cable TV. We were passing out flyers on election day. This will be a annual affair and we will be doing some other things. If people are looking and struggling to get into business, come to us with the ideas and we can see how we can make it work for them and others. In summary, I think today’s event was a wonderful opportunity to get to taste the food of so many different chefs. And the community seems to have come out in great numbers and everyone seems to be enjoying it.”
Executive Director Earline Ruffin had the following comments about the event: “Today is our ‘Taste of Thanksgiving’ where all the entrepreneurs come in and distribute all their special goods. You can have your own restaurant, you can work out of your home-this is the people’s day to promote their business. We supplied the space and tables, and the only thing we ask is $1 admission and a small donation from the participants. Other than that, this is to let the public know that our upcoming organization, the Austin Landmark Culture Center is coming their way and to be prepared to have all the activities and all the fun the Austin community deserves. I am so excited about the turnout today. It is beautiful and I just thanked the community and everyone who worked with us.”
Austin Weekly News did not talk with every vendor, but a sampling of interviews follows: John Wood, owner of “Grandma Bessie’s Shrimp & Soul Restaurant,” located at 1260 N. Cicero, said: “I’ve been in business now about two months. After working for another company for a long period, I decided to open my own business. I got involved with this event because a lady stopped by the store and gave me some flyers and it seemed like something I wanted to do.”
Nita Nelson and Jenise Lathon are the owners of Je’Mar Delectables. Nita had this to say: “We’ve been in business for a combination of 10 years. I had been doing events, and my cousin [Jenise] had been doing food, so we decided to merge our businesses. We found out about this through the Austin Weekly. Jenise said this is something we need to do, and I said OK, let’s do it.” Jenise added, “I wasn’t expecting it to go as well as it has, but I am elated. I’ve been a chef for about five years, and we also do catering.”
Al Hodges, sales rep for Magnolia Spice Teas, Inc. said, “We are locating just south of downtown Chicago [329 W. 18th Street] right at 18th & Canal. That is our home office and warehouse. We are an African-American-owned company. It is owned by a black woman, named Calvita Frederick-Sowell, who created the tea. She is a former attorney. She decided to get out of practicing law and do something she really loved that was more fulfilling, and she came up with the company Magnolia Spice Tea. She started off with one flavor, ‘autumn nectar,’ and she proceeded to develop eight more flavors. We have a line of teas and our top-selling tea is southern-style sweet tea. We also have an unsweetened tea for people who are diabetic. All our beverages are all natural. We don’t use any sugar or animal by-products whatsoever. They are sweetened with evaporated cane juice because people want to know when they taste it-it is sweet, so if you’re not using sugar what are you using? Evaporated cane juice is much healthier. We also have a line of fruit and nectar juices.”
John Roberts owner of That Jerk Shoppe said, “I started about 15 years ago, but we started this business in 2002. We operated a restaurant on Ashland Avenue for four years. We sold last year and now we’re trying to get on the West Side, preferably Madison, Chicago Avenue or any one of those avenues. We do catering, I can be reached at 773/458-8875; e-mail: email@example.com. or at Mandell Church where I am a member.”
Taste of Thanksgiving organizers are also planning a New Year’s Eve celebration. Call 773/378-0212.