Culture Club

A holiday potluck with global appeal is delicious in any language

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Luisa Porter

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

In the normal course of things, a potluck may seem an humble affair, but not when it’s the annual International Spouses Group’s holiday party each December. Then it becomes a sparkling occasion — a culinary United Nations of sorts, in the heart of Columbus.

With savory and sweet dishes indigenous to countries as wildly varied as Japan and Peru, Turkey and Spain, China and Iceland, this multinational feast is flavored with laughter and languages. It’s the sound of cultures connecting, of international spouses from Columbus Air Force Base finding their place in this home away from home.

Patricia Wilson remembers the feeling. Remembers being separated from family and friends in an unfamiliar land where she didn’t speak the language. The U.S. Air Force had assigned her husband, Pat, to Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany.

“We’d only been there two weeks when a German neighbor in the village where we lived, who spoke good English, came over to say hello and said, ‘I know you’re Air Force, and I want to take you to a German grocery store,’” recounted Patricia, who is of Hispanic descent. The kind gesture was a cultural lifesaver. “If I’d gone by myself, it would have been a disaster!”

That memory helped fuel the formation of the International Spouses Group. Wilson took the lead in starting it after she and her husband, now retired, landed at CAFB in 2003. Nancy Wilson, whose husband was wing commander at the time, lent her support. What began with a casual social in Patricia’s home has since bloomed into a supportive network for foreign spouses — wives of student pilots, instructors, officers, enlisted personnel, contractors — many coping with language barriers, isolation, curious customs and cuisine.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

There are no officers, no dues or mandatory meetings, although the group does have a representative within the Columbus Spouses Club at the air base. The holiday party and an annual fall luncheon are main events, but casual socials throughout the year mark baby showers, farewells and simply getting to know each other.

“It’s all about fun and food and celebrating the friendships we have,” said Marleen Hansen of Columbus. Through this group, Patricia, Marleen and Linda “L.L.” Gates are at the heart of the Columbus community’s outreach to spouses who must sometimes feel like “strangers in a strange land.”

WINTER FÊTE
Today, Patricia still opens her home, especially for the December party.

“We ask ladies to pick a favorite holiday from their country and make a dish they would normally prepare for it,” explained the vivacious hostess, who revels in creating a special setting.

“When you walked in, you saw this humongous tree,” said international spouse Caty Freeman, a native of Saxony, Germany, who met and married her military husband while he was stationed in Europe. She attended the 2012 potluck. “The living and dining area had a patriotic style, with reds and blues, and Patricia displays all the little treasures she’s brought home from all over the world, which means a lot to the ladies.”

Maria Andrews, born in Okinawa, Japan, bragged on the food: “The cuisine is a wonderful adventure that really broadens your palate.”

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

SPEAKING OF CULTURES
Like Patricia, Marleen and L.L. are committed to easing the culture shock.

Marleen is a volunteer with the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce’s military affairs committee. She’s also a matchmaker, searching out individuals who speak Thai, Russian, Portuguese, Polish and other languages to pair with spouses who arrive speaking little-to-no English. Patricia, fluent in Spanish, is an eager resource, too. As she knows, anyone bereft of communication can find something as simple as buying food a frightening experience.

“When we know someone new who doesn’t speak English, we give them a welcome and offer to take them to town,” she said. “Even mac and cheese! You’d be surprised how happy they are to find someone who can help them read the instructions to make mac and cheese, especially when they have small children.”

It may take a little courage for some spouses to attend the first event, Marleen acknowledged, but once they do, they connect with others who are sharing their experience.

OPPORTUNITIES
Gates is East Mississippi Community College’s director of job placement and work-based learning and serves as military liaison for the school. She and Hansen helped establish the Welcome to America program at EMCC. International spouses may join a class for a modest fee, foregoing normal course requirements. It helps them grasp a better understanding of English and local customs.

“It’s a real cultural interchange — not just us-to-them, but them-to-us,” said Gates, who organizes the elegant autumn luncheon for the group, sponsored by EMCC and CAFB. “It’s fun to see them grow and blossom, to feel confident and welcome.”

German-born Anke Peterson was delighted to find such a group when she came to CAFB. “I was very surprised finding it here in Columbus; it’s not a big, gigantic city. This is a great way to connect with other spouses and to people in town.”

The bond military spouses share can be a tight one, regardless of age, world views, finances or ranks. The International Spouses Group is a vital component. And who’s to say a splendid potluck can’t go a long way in forging friendships that strengthen the Air Force, the base and the local community as well?


OKINAWAN HIRAYACHI/JAPANESE OKONOMIYAKI

Bacon (optional)

For the batter:

1-2 eggs
2 ½ cups water
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon dashi (soup stock concentrate)
½ teaspoon salt

For the filling:

Any vegetable, sliced thinly enough to cook quickly. Cabbage and onions work well.

For the sauce (about 3:2:1 ratio):

Mayonnaise (Japanese mayo if available)
Soy sauce
Worcestershire sauce

• In mixing bowl combine ingredients for batter.
• Cut vegetables into thin slices and combine with batter.
• Oil frying pan and heat to medium high.
• Pour about 1 cup of mixture into frying pan and form into circle with spatula. Place bacon slices on top if desired.
• Let cook to a golden brown on both sides.
• Dip in sauce and enjoy.

(Source: Maria Andrews)


TURKISH MUCVER
Deep fried patties of grated zucchini

4 medium zucchini, grated
3 eggs
¼ cup flour
7-8 fresh onions
3 tablespoons dill weed
3 tablespoons fresh spearmint
3 tablespoons fresh parsley
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper, powdered
½ teaspoon baking powder
4 tablespoons olive oil

• Squeeze and drain grated zucchini to remove excess juice.
• Mince dill, onion, spearmint and parsley; mix with grated zucchini and add eggs, flour, salt, pepper and baking powder. Mix all to form batter.
• Pour 1 tablespoon of batter into hot olive oil in pan; fry for three minutes on each side.
• Serve hot with Turkish yogurt with garlic.

(Source: Sitare Moore)


SPEKULATIUS
Traditional German Christmas cookies

4 ¼ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon vanilla sugar
1 ¼ cups sugar
14 tablespoons cold butter
2 eggs
2 drops almond extract
7 tablespoons ground almonds

• Sift or mix flour with baking powder and dry spices. Set aside.
• Cream sugars and butter well. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Add almond extract. Stir into flour mixture.
• Add ground almonds and mix. Knead until stiff dough forms.
• Form dough into smooth ball, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour (overnight is great).
• Roll out dough to ¼-inch thick and cut out cookies in preferred shape.
• Bake at 350 degrees for 10-12 minutes, or until cookies brown slightly at edges.

(Source: Caty Freeman)


BEA’S SWEET POTATO PIE

1 9-inch pie crust
2 cups baked and mashed sweet potatoes
¼ cup butter, melted
½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt (optional if butter is salted)
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
2 eggs

• Bake sweet potatoes in oven at 350 degrees for 50 minutes. Mash.
• Mix remaining ingredients in the order listed. Beat until smooth.
• Pour into thawed 9-inch unbaked pie crust and bake for 15 minutes at 400 degrees. Reduce oven to 350 degrees and continue to bake for 30-40 minutes  more or until a dinner knife inserted in center comes out clean.

(Source: Ivalita Gibbs)


TORREJAS
Dessert served in Honduras during Christmas 

6 eggs
1 cup rice flour
3 tapa de dulce (caramelized sugar cane bar)
1 stick cinnamon

• In sauce pan, pour 10 cups of water, 1 cinnamon stick and 3 tapa de dulce bars. Stir while cooking until melted and just boiling. Set aside.
• For batter, separate egg whites from yolk; stir egg whites for six minutes. Add yolks one at a time, stirring between every yolk.
• Add ½ cup of rice flour and stir for three minutes, add other ½ cup and stir.
• For pancakes, heat non-stick skillet over medium-low heat. Pour ¼ cup of batter  per pancake into skillet. Flip and cook until golden brown on both sides.
• Carefully place pancakes into the reserved liquid in the sauce pan. Reheat until liquid is boiling. Pancakes will darken in color to a golden brown once they absorb the liquid.

(Source: Nancy Kondon)