By Roberto Ontiveros
Photography by Marc Brown
When cooking for her husband, Lance, and daughters, Lily and iolana, Austin-based folk musician Sara Hickman loves to make a welcoming platter of savory and slightly spicy pad thai. Preparing the dish one recent evening, Hickman welcomed us into her kitchen—an obvious family hub, draped throughout with the children’s and adults’ artwork from the abstract to art-class experimentation.
Hickman’s daughters, who both inherited their mother’s soulful eyes, appear to be very comfortable in the kitchen alongside Mom—it seems a familiar place. And they’re hungry!
For tonight’s meal, Hickman, a well-known fixture at local farmers markets, gathered fresh mushrooms, eggs, cilantro, honey and scallions from SFC Farmers’ Market at Sunset Valley. The mélange of tender shrimp and noodles will be served with cooling glasses of Thai tea, Hickman’s favorite sweet drink. “I enjoy the simplicity of this meal, the variety of textures and flavors and the easy preparation to create it,” she says. “Plus, it's a short journey to Thailand . . . on a budget!”
Hickman’s first encounter with pad thai was at a tucked-away restaurant in Dallas in 1986. “It was a tiny, family-run restaurant in the Lakewood area,” she says. “I loved that family very much. Their son—who was only four at the time—was named Panda, and perhaps it was a nickname, but he was hyper and funny and his parents allowed him to run around and talk with the guests. I liked the open and sweet vibe of how the family was creating food for its patrons but allowing the family to be itself at the same time.” Hickman especially loved the texture of the pad thai, “the consistency of the noodles—not too soft, slightly al dente—and the shrimp was always really fresh. I also loved how they added the bean sprouts and cilantro as decoration,” she says.
She was immediately hooked on Thai cuisine and wanted to learn the art of making pad thai herself. “Thai food is one of my favorite things to prepare because it reminds me of always being with people—with family, friends,” she says. “In preparing it, I’m aware that I will have plenty to share, and it pleases me to think of happy faces around the table, laughing, enjoying a homemade meal that is from another culture.”
Getting together over dinner with the people she loves is essential to keeping life in balance for Hickman, who between studio work, touring, painting and teaching the occasional cooking class, makes it a point to gather everyone around the table.
“Family time at the table is sacred to me,” she says. “We generally start with a blessing of gratitude and a prayer from a wonderful book we have [Graces: Prayers and Poems for Everyday Meals and Special Occasions by June Cotner] that includes graces from around the world and various cultures. Everyone at the table is welcome to share their thoughts, their day,” she says. “We also play dinner games, enjoy storytelling, jokes . . . or we make up songs using items from the table as instruments—forks on glassware, slapping our legs, et cetera, while we sing . . . or we talk about upcoming trips, school activities. [The table] is the hearth of our home—keeping consistency, stability and love ever present.”
As important as it is to gather her loved ones around a table of abundance, Sara is happy to pull up extra chairs. “We are always excited to have drop-ins or guests,” she says. “My feeling is: the more the merrier!”