Escapades at the international potluck



How to explore new foods and cross cultural relationships? Sometimes carefully, and with a good sense of humor. ©THINKSTOCK

They arrived late to a special international potluck in Washington, D.C. They had left in good time, she thought, but they had run into a bottleneck at the end of Cabin John Parkway. And then they had searched nearly an hour for the American Councils building where the potluck would be held.

Here they were. She looked around at her family. One child carried the bread, one carried the bucket holding butter and jam and one carried a triumphant casserole dish of dolma, meatballs of mutton and rice packaged in grape leaves. It was the product of five hours of labor, prepared for the international potluck, and it nestled beautifully in the dish, topped by three slices of lemon.

The assortment of food at the potluck was delightful. Sliced turkey decorated by cranberries dominated the counter. A glass dish of sweet potato pudding, crusted with brown sugar and nuts stood near. A slow cooker held a bone-laden offering of adobo from the Philippines. She peered into the delightful and new dishes. A bowl of parsley and rice looked like an offering from Thailand. Kluay buad chee?

She moved to the end of the counter. Georgian cheese bread jostled for a place with German Apple Strudel. The previous diners had sampled everything indiscriminately.

And then she came to it. Blini from Ukraine. It was a low round heap on a plate, with slumping shoulders and a soft, pale brown center. Beside it was dish of raspberry yogurt topping. Evidently you ate the yogurt with this dessert.

Whatever blini was. It looked like a cake, except not so high. And in the countertop full of absent slices and half-empty pots, it alone appeared untouched. No one had so much as cut a slice from it.

Well, she would. What a shame for a person to go to all the work of constructing this dish of blini and then have no one to eat it. A plastic knife lay near the plate and she picked it up. She might not be able to cut straight, balancing a plastic plate in her hand, but she would do what she could. She hated to see a plate un-tasted at an international potluck.

As she sliced down through the shallow round, she noticed it was in layers, like a cake, except far thinner and far more. Fascinating. It didn’t seem to hold anything between the layers, though. Interesting. She lifted her triangular piece to her plate, satisfied. She reached for a dab of raspberry yogurt. Hmmm … Someone had already been dishing from it. They must have used it on another dish.

She herded her daughters to the table and sat down to enjoy her international meal. The turkey was good and the kluay buad chee.

The dolma was cold. She was sorry. It had been so tasty at home. The children were picking at their food, skirting anything green and tasting anything chocolate. She ate her adobo, feeling brave. She talked to the woman on her left, who had a strong accent and was accompanied by two small girls.

She decided to tackle the blini. She brought her fork down through the layers, stabbed a stack of them, smeared them with yogurt and brought it to her mouth. Intriguing. It tasted like pancake.

She thought she was a smart woman, but even then she did not guess it. No, she ate the whole stack of triangle layers, and she even suggested to her husband that the children might enjoy the dish from Ukraine that tasted like pancake, but she did not guess what she had done.

As the evening wore on, she learned more about the exchange student programs of which her host daughter was part; she visited with a local community coordinator. She talked about the food she was eating and listened to the recommendations for various dishes. They were all good. She noticed on some of the other plates were crepes, thin pancakes, rolled into tubes, or heaped, a supple spiral, by piles of yogurt. Where had they come from?

He looked at her and in the glow of the dash lights, she saw the disbelief on his face. He had married this woman, had he?

And no, she still didn’t guess.

Half an hour later, as she was brushing back through the hall on the way to change her baby’s diaper, she glanced at the dish from Ukraine to see if anyone else had gotten a slice since she had—and paused. There on the plate was a lone crepe, a thin pancake-like layer—with a triangular notch in it.

Oh. No. Oh, no! What had she done? It hadn’t been cake at all, or meant to be cut into wedges. It had been a stack of pancakes—and she had mutilated them all.

Well, of all things. It was too late now. She kept going. She had to check on the children and she wanted to talk to the interesting lady in blue…

The evening ended in a rush to return to the parking garage before the time expired. They gathered the bread and the empty casserole dish which had held the dolma, and which now held only two slices of the decorative three slices of lemon.

In the minivan on the way home, she and her husband discussed the evening. The people had been friendly and interesting, they agreed. Maybe folks who host international exchange students are more comfortable relating to other cultures. She enjoyed a moment or two of satisfied reflection. They, too, were part of this group of out-of-the-box people. They discussed the food: it had all been good.

And then he came to it. “Did you see those pancake things, like crepes?” he asked.

She stopped breathing, briefly. “Yes … ?”

“Someone had just hacked a hunk out of the whole stack,” he said.

“That was me,” she said, and she lifted her hands to her face to hide her cheeks in the darkness. “I did it. I didn’t understand—I thought—”

He looked at her and in the glow of the dash lights, she saw the disbelief on his face. He had married this woman, had he? “You just ruined the whole pile,” he said, merciless in his incredulity.
“I know, it was dumb, I didn’t realize what it was—”

He didn’t say anything else as they drove toward home, and the children chattered in the back seat and the baby slept. She didn’t say anything either. But the moment passed, and soon they were talking again, discussing plans for the coming weeks.

He never mentioned it again. She did not forget, however. She remembered it again the next morning. The incident had been, in its way, amusing.

Her thoughts bottlenecked at the images: the hunk of thin layers on her fork, the lone crepe left on the plate with its wedge-shaped abruption. It must have disturbed every person who had eaten the dish. It disturbed her now.

She wondered how many other times she had slaughtered someone’s cultural offering with the plastic table knife of ignorance wielded in a rush of good intentions. Oh yes, the story had some good parallels; it would have been such fun to write about–if only she hadn’t done it.

If only she could write about it now. And then—she thought of it. She could write it in third person.

She would. She would chortle with the readers at the blunders of the ignoramus at the international potluck. Because it really did make a great story.

And no one would guess who had done it.

SHEILA J PETRE is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania.

Those interested in hosting international students can check out many organizations including or


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