DESTA BAIRU CAME TO AMERICA in 1959 to serve her country. She also came to serve food: For more than a decade, Desta was the cook for the Ethiopian ambassador to the United Nations in New York, and by all accounts and memories, she was a good one.
But in the early 1970s, the ambassador for whom she worked accepted a job in government back home, and Desta decided to stay in America, doing domestic work for families in New York City for a few years before moving to Washington, D.C., which had a small but growing Ethiopian community.
Then, in 1974, revolutionaries deposed Haile Selassie, the long-time emperor of Ethiopia, and things changed dramatically for the Ethiopian people: The new leaders, who called themselves the Derg (“committee”), turned into sanguinary communist dictators, and many people fled to avoid execution, or just to get away from a bad situation that only grew worse during the Derg’s 17 years in power.
For Ethiopians like Desta, living in America was a fortunate thing, and the turmoil that followed the revolution made it impossible (or at least very dangerous) for her to return home. A few years later, though, another kitchen door opened.
If you ask Ethiopians to name their cuisine’s first restaurant in America, they’ll tell you it was Mamma Desta in Washington, D.C. They would be wrong: The first one opened 12 years earlier, in Long Beach, Calif. But Mamma Desta is the one that lasted and the one that everyone remembers, and it really did launch the cuisine on the American scene.
Desta Bairu was born in Asmara, Eritrea, on June 1, 1914, back in the day when Eritrea was an Italian colony (later to become Ethiopia’s northernmost province). Today, after decades of war with Ethiopia, it’s an independent country (since 1993), engaged in an ongoing war of words and border skirmishes with its former mate. So it’s just a little ironic – and perhaps, for Ethiopians, bittersweet – that the woman who lent her name to America’s most famous “first Ethiopian restaurant” was, in fact, Eritrean.
Desta, whose name means “happiness” or “joy,” never actually owned the two restaurants – one in Washington, D.C., and one in Chicago – that carried her name: She was merely the face of each place and its cook (although for two years, she did own a share of the Chicago place).
Mamma Desta in Washington, D.C., opened at 4840 Georgia Ave. NW in the spring of 1978, and on June 11, 1978, The Washington Post’s food critic, Phyllis Richman, reviewed what she inaccurately referred to as “Washington’s Ethiopian restaurant, the first in this country, and maybe the first anywhere outside of Africa.” At least she spelled the restaurant’s name correctly in that initial piece: A year later, in a roundup of the city’s now three Ethiopian restaurants, she went back and forth between “Mamma” and “Mama.”
Richman enjoyed the food: She described the dishes and the injera, which she called a sort of pancake, all unknown to Americans at the time, and she taught people how to eat. “You spoon mounds of each dish on the communal pizza pan,” Richman wrote, “tear off pieces of pancake, and scoop up the food in it. No forks, no private property, plenty of napkins.” She chatted with the restaurant’s manager (unnamed), who told her that he planned to “import Ethiopian baskets for serving” (i.e., mesobs), and that soon, “Mamma Desta herself may change her white uniform and head draping for a Western red dress and make the rounds of the tables.” Pleased by her bill of just $5, which would be about $16.50 today, Richman concluded, “Mamma Desta could be the mother of the year.”
A month earlier, Washington Post reporter Robert L. Asher had introduced Mamma Desta’s to the city with a witty piece about his visit to the place with his wife, their 11-year-old son, and his son’s friend. The menu listed the day’s only three dishes, but a host and hostess came out to tell them of the unlisted daily special. All together, the quartet dined on chicken, fish and two beef dishes. There were no vegetable offerings.
“The supply of food was most generous,” he wrote. “In fact, the boys had some of the leftover pancake bagged up for keeping either as souvenirs, doorstops or football padding.”
A few paragraphs later, he ends his piece with his only anecdote about the chef: “Mamma Desta, by the way, is the cook, whom we didn’t meet. As the owner explains, it is she who decides what’s going to be served on a given night. ‘She does what she wants,’ he commented with a shrug and a grin. Well, she does just fine – and even though there’s a ‘suggestion box’ perched atop the coat rack, we couldn’t begin to tell her how to do any better.”
And so it began: Desta’s restaurant served her community and those brave ferenj who dared to try this unusual cuisine. As things grew worse in Ethiopia, more Ethiopians emigrated, and more restaurants opened to serve them. A few years later, facing increased competition, Mamma Desta closed, and its namesake moved on.
When Desta left Washington, D.C., after her restaurant closed, she moved to Madison, Wis., just a few hours from Chicago, to live with friends and to keep making a living by preparing food and serving it in her home. Erku Yimer, now the executive director of Chicago’s Ethiopian Cultural Center, was a graduate student back then at the University of Wisconsin, and he remembers eating at Desta’s house in the early 1980s with Madison’s small Ethiopian community.
Desta charged about $6 or $7 for a meal, Erku recalls, and sometimes, “all of the Ethiopians around, there were not that many, maybe 30 or something,” would come together to dine there.
“She talked to people, and she was very entertaining,” says Erku, who ate at Desta’s at least once a week. “The portions she served, they were very, very generous.” In fact, people would sometimes pay her more than her quoted price in thanks for the bounty of food.
Desta also made her own Ethiopian spices, like berbere or awaze, and gave them to her patrons to take home. She bought each blend’s ingredients – red pepper, ginger, garlic, cardamom, cumin and more – at Indian markets and then mixed them herself to create the Ethiopian-style blends.
Erku enjoyed Desta’s doro wot and especially her yebeg kay wat (spicy lamb stew), but he doesn’t remember her preparing any vegetable dishes to go with the meat. “At the time, the technology of making injera was not that great,” Erku says, “but it was fermented, and there was some teff in it.”
From there, Tekle Gabriel picks up her story. He arrived in America from Ethiopia in the 1970s to attend college and stayed here because of the situation back home. In 1983, Tekle was a young Chicagoan with some money in his pocket, looking for a good business opportunity. Some friends persuaded him that his venture should be Chicago’s first Ethiopian restaurant.
“I was not enthused about the idea,” the wry restaurateur recalled 25 years later. “I had a hard time eating my own cooking.”
But he finally agreed, especially after coming upon the idea of recruiting Desta, who was 70 years old, to join him.
Tekle knew the small Madison community of Ethiopians, and when he began to plan his restaurant, he asked Desta to be his business partner and cook. She agreed, and Mama Desta’s Red Sea opened in January 1984 on Clark Street, not too far from Wrigley Field, but this time, with just one “m” in the middle of the name.
Desta made her Chicago injera with a mix of flours and with no teff, just as she did at her Washington restaurant, because teff was impossible to get in America at the time.
Their partnership lasted only two years before Tekle bought Desta’s ownership share in 1986. The restaurant bearing her name lasted for a quarter century, until Tekle had to close in 2009, a victim of competition, a building in need of costly repairs, and a desire to take a break after a quarter century in the rugged restaurant business.
When Desta left the Chicago restaurant, Tekle recalls, she went to live with relatives in Atlanta and then in Minneapolis. She even returned to Eritrea for a while, where the story goes that President Isaias Afewerki and an honor guard greeted the pioneering cultural entrepreneur at the airport for a red-carpet welcome. But she experienced culture shock there after so many years away, and soon she came back to America.
Araya Yibrehu knew Desta and remembers her as “a charming magnificent lady. Though she never had children,” he says, “everyone called her Mama Desta, and she treated everyone like her own.” Araya, too, was a pioneer of Ethiopian cuisine: He and some friends opened Sheba, New York City’s first Ethiopian restaurant, in 1979, and now he makes Axum Tej, which he sells to restaurants and wine shops around the country. He, too, has heard the story of her heralded return to Eritrea after her time in Chicago.
Schooled in the lessons of life, Desta Bairu spoke Amharic (the state language of Ethiopia), Tigrinya (the language of Eritrea), Italian (Eritrea was an Italian colony for half a century), English, and even a little Arabic, most likely from having lived for a time in Libya in the early 1930s after Italy colonized the northern African country for a while. (Desta may have gone there to cook for Eritrean soldiers sent by Italy to Libya.) She had numerous tattoos, the most prominent one being four Ethiopic letters on her thick upper right arm that spell “Azeyeb” – the name, in Tigrinya, for Makeda, the legendary queen of Saba, or Sheba. Her final home was the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, where records show that she died on June 20, 2002, just a few weeks after her 88th birthday.
The block on Georgia Avenue NW in D.C. where Desta once served her unique cuisine is now a little commercial and a little residential, but not too Ethiopian: There are plenty of Ethiopian places along the street, just not at the corner where she started it all. And on Clark Street in Chicago, her departed restaurant’s awning still hovers over the entranceway of the shuttered storefront. A nearby shop that sells piercings and leather attire to bikers has leased the window to display its fashions.
So all that remains now of Desta Bairu are the tales of a few long-time Ethiopian-Americans – and the more than 350 restaurants across the country that keep her culinary memory alive.
University of Pittsburgh