The Magnolia City Speakeasy: A Rice student’s Underground, Vegan Pop-up
When Elana Margosis picks up the phone for our FaceTime interview, the sound of steaming floods the background. This can only mean one thing — Margosis is cooking. The steam, she tells me, comes from a vegan flan recipe she’s workshopping for her monthly pop-up dinner, the Magnolia City Speakeasy, where she invites guests into her home and cooks a three-course, plant-based meal for them.
Margosis, a Duncan College senior, started the Magnolia City Speakeasy in Sept. 2018. She uses the phrase “Magnolia City,” one of Houston’s former nicknames, because it reflects the plants native to the area. She calls it a “speakeasy” because it brings to mind an underground gathering of a close community. True to the name, guests pay a “suggested donation” to buy a ticket, rather than paying for the meal like they would in a restaurant.
“It does kind of make you feel like you’re doing something cool — underground, or something,” Katie Webber, a three-time attendee, said.
A dinner filled with vegan food might not sound appealing to everyone, but this is one of the reasons why Margosis chooses to cook only plant-based meals — to show people that “delicious” and “vegan” aren’t mutually exclusive. Margosis said she also wants to support local farms, especially those who use sustainable agriculture practices. Additionally, she’s noticed many of her vegan friends struggle to find vegan restaurants despite Houston’s abundance of fine cuisine, so her speakeasy provides the gourmet vegan food they desire.
These vegan friends were the first guests to the Magnolia City Speakeasy, which is invite-only. Margosis originally invited her friends and some classmates to attend the event, but soon they began inviting their friends until the event became so popular that tickets once sold out in two hours.
“We’ve got regulars now, which is incredible,” Margosis said.
Each month’s meal has a theme — Margosis has made Japanese, Southern and Tex-Mex cuisine, to name a few — and she chooses dishes that she thinks would be both fun and feasible. But, like an essay, that is only the first draft of the menu. Once she has an idea of the dishes she wants to cook, she’ll go to the Rice Farmers Market, where she chooses the produce that would fit well in her menu. Based on the produce that they have available, she revises it. Then she starts preparing the food two days in advance, trying out recipes and making what she can ahead of time before she and her roommate make the rest on the day of the event.
However, the event has limited space, with a maximum of twelve to thirteen guests. This isn’t because Margosis wants to make the event exclusive — in fact, she said she’d love to expand the event. But right now, expansion isn’t possible for a innocuous reason: space. In her apartment, there’s only one stove and and oven, limiting the amount of dishes she can make. Additionally, she said that she and her roommate Sarah Bradford only have about 13 sets of plates, cups and forks, meaning they have to wash the dishes in between every course.
“All of our plates and cutlery and cups are all mismatched, which I think is part of the charm,” Margosis said.
Margosis said she started the event as a response to her experiences working in professional kitchens and, more recently, spending the summer cooking for 20 workers on Hana Farms in Hawaii. After spending months using odds and ends from the farm’s pantry to make creative dishes like eggplant breaded with crushed tortilla chips, she wanted to continue the experience in her Houston apartment.
Because of these experiences, Margosis says she would be interested in making cooking a part of her career. She hasn’t focused on cooking in her academics — in her kinesiology and public policy majors, she focuses on sexual and reproductive health — but she said she would love to work for a non-profit such as Urban Harvest or Brighter Bites, which tackle urban farming and food security, respectively.
Margosis said that the most important qualities a menu can have are balance and variety. Logistically, it’s important to have some dishes that she can prepare ahead of time so that she isn’t rushing to make everything on the day of the event. But creatively, Margosis likes her menu as well as the individual dishes to have a mixture of textures, flavors and temperatures.
“A menu that’s just mushy carbohydrates isn’t a whole lot of fun,” Margosis said. “But once you pair some carbohydrates with some fresh vegetables, with something a little sweeter, something a little sour, something spicy, then you get something that’s a lot more interesting.”
Margosis said that the process of creating and revising a menu is her favorite part of hosting the Magnolia City Speakeasy.
“I love going from a blank page to a fully realized meal and having people come into my home and enjoy this meal that I cooked for them,” Margosis said.
But she also enjoys the connections that she makes through the event.
“I also love how intimate these events are because they are in my home,” Margosis said. “It’s a great way to meet new people and to have deeper connections with the people who I already know, and it’s a great way for other people to meet people who they may never have met before.”
Webber agreed that one of the best parts of the speakeasy is meeting new people and spending time with her friends in a new environment.
“[All three times I’ve attended] I’ve gotten to hang out with and catch up with friends, but also I’ve met or sat with someone new,” Webber said. “It’s not like we’re going to be BFFs, but it’s still nice to hang out with someone new.”
Ultimately, the Magnolia City Speakeasy brings people together. And what better way is there to bring people together than through food?
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