The First Supper

Beyene Guililat was a wanderer.

His life began in Ethiopia, took him to both American coasts and a few points in between, and may have ended in Kenya, many decades and many enterprises later. The people who knew him speak of him with nostalgic chuckles, and they tell tales that seem more like urban legend than biography.

In 1966, it seems he even went missing, although nobody knows for how long. The only trace of this brief episode in his life is a classified ad that ran for five days in the Los Angeles Times from April 26-30, 1966: "Reward. $50 for positive information regarding Beyene Guililat. Last known address 1959 Locust Ave., Long Beach, Calif."

Eventually he turned up - and went on to make Ethiopian-American history.

For of the many things he did, nothing approaches the significance of one short-lived Long Beach enterprise: Ethiopian Restaurant was the first of its cuisine in the world outside of Ethiopia, and Beyene owned it.

Most Ethiopians on the east coast of the United States, and many on the west coast, believe that America's and the world's first Ethiopian restaurant was Mamma Desta, opened in 1978, in Washington, D.C., by an American entrepreneur, and named for its chef, Desta Bairu, who came to the U.S. in 1959 from Eritrea to cook for Ethiopia's United Nations ambassador.

In fact, Beyene opened an Ethiopian restaurant in the U.S. more than a decade earlier. People who knew him then say he began his restaurant career a year or two before his Ethiopian restaurant with an old-fashioned American diner inside a recreational vehicle. Only a handful of older Ethiopian-Americans now remember the early enterprises of the peripatetic Beyene, who has become an almost forgotten restaurant pioneer.

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The Spices of Life

Back in the early '70s, before Ethiopian restaurants or markets began to show up in American cities, Ethiopians here had two choices if they wanted to make authentic cuisine: Get your spices from back home, or become friends with Workinesh Nega.

When Workinesh and her husband, Selashe Kebede, moved to America in 1974, they did so with the intention of pursuing their chosen careers. Workinesh had earned a graduate degree as a nurse anesthetist from the University of Pittsburgh, and that's what she did in Ethiopia when she returned there after college. Selashe, who had a doctorate in agriculture, began work for an Ethiopian company that made spices.

Then came the Derg, and they and their children got out. Selashe joined a spice extraction company in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Workinesh went back to school for some retraining.

This was a time when the small but growing population of Ethiopian-Americans used pancake batter to make ersatz injera and cayenne to spice their wots. Even people who knew how to cook would rarely bother to search out all the things they needed to do it properly. So Workinesh began to experiment, and soon she started whipping up batches of authentic spices to give as gifts to her Ethiopian-American friends, a circle that included some exiled members of the royal family, many of whom came to America when the Derg deposed their patriarch.

A few years later, Workinesh grew disenchanted with nursing, and she left the field. That's when she created the pioneering company that celebrated 30 years in business in 2008.

Workinesh Spice Blends has always been mom 'n' pop: For many years Workinesh ran it herself, and when Selashe retired in 1996, he joined her in the warehouse-cum-kitchen. For about 10 years after that, their children now grown, the couple began to divide their time between the U.S. and Ethiopia, making sure their clients were well stocked before they left Kalamazoo, and then closing the company for several months of the year.

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ęCopyright 2010 by Harry Kloman