Thursday, January 16, 2014

Antics at an International Potluck

I love Sheila's ability to laugh. Hosting a foreign exchange student has brought her many new experiences, including this one.

Sheila J Petre

They arrived late to the international Thanksgiving potluck in Washington D.C. They had left in good time, she thought, as she stood at the locked glass doors with her family, awaiting entrance. But they had run into a bottleneck at the end of Cabin John Parkway--and then they had driven for almost an hour up and down one-way streets in a confusing search for the American Councils building where the potluck would be held.

Here they were at last. She looked around at her family. One person carried the bread, one carried the bucket which held 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 greenly in the dish, topped by three slices of lemon.

An attendant unlocked the door, they rode the elevator to the twelfth floor, surged through another set of glass doors, and arrived at the international potluck.

The first seven minutes were a jostle of putting food on the food-laden counter, hanging up coats, trekking to the restroom, learning what to do when and how. Finally she found herself in the food line, while one kind stranger held her baby and another kind stranger helped her daughters navigate along with their plastic plates held high.

The assortment of food was bewildering and delightful. A platter of sliced turkey decorated by cranberries dominated the counter. A glass dish of sweet potato pudding, crusted with brown sugar and nuts--nuts!--stood near. A slow cooker held a bone-laden offering of adobo from the Philippines. She peered in. She partook. A bowl of parsley and rice looked like an offering from Thailand. Kluay buad chee
She moved on to the end of the counter. Georgian cheese bread jostled for a place with the German Apple Strudel. Everything had been sampled indiscriminately by the previous diners.

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 a lot like a cake, only 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. It would be a shame if the person who had gone to all the work to construct this dish of blini would 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 one plate un-tasted at an international potluck.

As she sliced purposefully down through the shallow round, she noticed it was in layers, like a cake, only far thinner slices and innumerable more. Fascinating. It didn’t seem to have anything between the layers, though. Interesting. She lifted her triangular piece to her plastic 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 glanced at the Georgian cheese bread. Well, people do strange things.

She moved on to the pumpkin pie.

She herded her daughters to the table to eat 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, 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 a daughter and the friend of her daughter. 
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 that dish from Ukraine which 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 was secretly glad that the tea spilt near her was not spilt by one of her own children, and as she poured four cups with apple juice at the drink bar, she told a local community coordinator that no, she was not from Lancaster County, but that was a good guess. 
She talked about the food she was eating, and listened to the recommendations for the various dishes. They were all good. She noticed that 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? 
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 to eat. It had been a stack of pancakes--and she had mutilated them all.

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

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 but two slices of the decorative three slices of lemon. They said good-bye to the people they had met and helped the children zip their coats. They took the elevator down twelve stories, straggled out the long hall, pushed through the glass doors and emerged again on the streets of Washington DC.

In the van 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; the people had seemed so outgoing and at ease. She enjoyed a moment or two of satisfied reflection. They, too, were part of this group of out-of-the-box people. The food had been good; none of it had been unpalatable. 
And then he came to it. “Did you see those pancake things, like crepes?” he asked.

She stopped breathing, briefly. She could predict his next words. “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--”

She decided not to add that she had done it nobly, her heart bristling with good intentions.

He didn’t say anything else as they shot triumphantly north on Cabin John Parkway, 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 the events of the evening and the plans for the coming weeks.

He never mentioned it again. She did not forget, however. She remembered it again the next morning and the embarrassment of her mistake lowered like a supple crepe across the start of her day. It was too bad she had done it, she thought. The incident had been, in its way, amusing. 
Her thoughts bottlenecked at the images: the wedge of thin layers on her fork, the lone crepe left on the plate with its triangle-shaped abruption. It must have disturbed every person who had partaken of 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 ever guess who had done it.

 Sheila is in love with words - and children of all ages. As if five children age six and under were not enough in her household, this year Sheila and her husband Michael are hosting a foreign exchange student from Azerbaijan. Sheila is the author of Transplanted and From Joy, and a regular columnist in the Ladies Journal. Somehow she finds time to edit The King's Daughter, a small quarterly magazine for young ladies. You can contact her about her books or The King's Daughter at


  1. This is brilliant! So funny, sad - and uplifting.

    Thank you for your bravery and generosity in sharing it.

  2. This post made my day. Haven't we all done stuff like this? I know I have. I think it makes for a great story and Sheila did a great job telling it.

  3. Laughing out loud!!! Thanks so much for sharing!! Wonderfully written, and reminds me of the time I.......she.....nevermind!!

  4. Wonderful story! It gave me my great big belly laugh for the day!

  5. LOL! At least it was real food! I had a friend try to eat the grapes off the center piece at a buffet..only to find them tough and rubbery... :o)
    (and it's Elaine and not Roger won't let me change my log in for some reason.

  6. I laughed so hard at this story!!! You are a wonderful storyteller. Blini sounds a lot like a dish my Austrian mom would make us kids. She called them blintzes and they were stuffed with sweetened farmers cheese and topped with cherry sauce. Yummy memories. God Bless!

  7. This is too funny! I would love to meet you, and talk- You are living one of my dreams, to host an exchange student! I've struggled with thinking maybe they would not like to live in our very normal household? Yet, very different from the culture that we live in... Keep your sense of humor and wonder!

  8. A wonderful and heart warming story, who in all of us hasn't made a similar blunder? But God probably found it humorous, too.

  9. I remember reading this in Keepers At Home and I laughed out loud then, just as I did when I read it again now.


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