Today’s post is written by Sheila Petre. She has a talent for making me laugh.
They arrived late to the international Thanksgiving potluck in Washington, D.C.. They had left in good time, she thought, as she stood by the locked glass doors with her family of eight, awaiting entrance. But they had run into a bottleneck at the end of Cabin John Parkway–and then 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, 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 the diverse culinary offerings with plastic plates held high.
The assortment of food was delightful. 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 was labeled “kluay buad chee, Thailand.”
She moved to the end of the counter. Georgian cheese bread jostled for a place with 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 a 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 cut so much as 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 to 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 untasted 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. Interesting. It didn’t seem to hold anything between the layers, though. Odd. 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 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 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 two small girls.
She decided to tackle the blini. She sawed 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 apple juice into four cups at the drink bar, she visited with a local community coordinator.
She talked about the food she was eating and listened to the recommendations for various dishes. She was surprised by how much she had enjoyed everything. She noticed that on some of the other plates were crepes, thin pancakes, either rolled into tubes or heaped in supple spirals by dabs 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 going. She had to check on the children, and she wanted to talk to that interesting lady in blue….
The evening ended in a rush to return to the parking garage before their parking ticket expired. They gathered the bread and the empty casserole dish which had held the dolma and which now held but two lemon slices. They said good-bye 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, D.C..
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 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.
“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 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 their 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 over 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 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 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, center, with her family and Nikki, the foreign exchange student they hosted at the time of this story
Sheila is a 29-year-old Mennonite housewife and freelance writer living in Mercersburg, PA. She and her husband Michael anticipate the arrival of their sixth child by spring of 2015; their oldest is seven. Last school year they hosted a 17-year-old Sunni Muslim girl–an exchange student–from Azerbaijan; this year they are hosting a 16-year-old Shia Muslim girl from Bahrain. These hosting experiences–with the other challenges of motherhood–expand her horizons, challenge and deepen her Christian faith, and make her even more anxious that all her loved ones reach heaven, where we shall all speak the same language and know as we are known.
Sheila is the author of Transplanted and From Joy…to Joy, and a regular columnist in the Ladies Journal. She is offering to mail her full collection of international tales in exchange for $9 and a self-addressed mailing label to anyone who requests it–40-50 looseleaf pages with titles such as “Tale of Two School Buses,” “Seasons of Doubt,” “A Narrow Look at Worldview” and more. Contact Sheila at firstname.lastname@example.org.