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Introduce the World at Your Dinner Table

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By Vicki

When I was growing up, I remember my mom making cornbread and beans and relish and a side of fried okra. Even though I was living in Pigeon, Michigan my mom was introducing her Southern heritage to me through food. Some of our dearest friends were a Hindu family who occasionally joined our family for holiday dinners. I can still remember the spicy curries our friend, Kala, contributed to our meals. Our noses would run and our eyes water from the spiciness of the dishes, but we kept going back for more because we loved it! Indian food is still one of my favorite cuisines.

Now, I live with my husband, Conrad, and our three daughters (ages 12, 12, and 8) in Urbana, Ohio, a small Midwestern city made up of predominantly white, middle-class people. In addition to the normal fast food chains often found in small cities, our town boasts one Mexican restaurant, one Italian café, and a handful of Chinese take-out restaurants. Several years ago, Conrad and I began to feel dissatisfied with the homogeneous nature of our city. We wanted our girls to understand that the world is made up of many different kinds of people and they don’t all look just like us! In an effort to introduce our daughters to something other than what our city had to offer, I began researching recipes from around the world and the idea of a weekly “International Night” was born!

How It Works

Once a week, I choose a recipe from another country to feature. Then, I research the country for things my elementary-aged daughters would find interesting: What language do the people speak? Is it a warm or a cold climate? What do the schools look like, and how do the children get to school? Do the people know about Jesus, or do they worship another god, or maybe many gods? If I’m really on the ball, I might even contact missionary friends living in that country and ask them how we might pray for their family and their ministry. Then, when it is time for dinner, our first step is to find the featured country on the globe. We show some pictures of children from that country as well as a picture of the flag and the other information we’ve gathered. Then, we go around the table taking turns praying for the featured country: Dear Jesus, we pray for the people of China that they might learn about "We wanted our girls to understand that the world is made up of many different kinds of people and they don’t all look just like us!"you and be in relationship with you. Jesus, we pray for the people of Turkey, that you would reveal yourself as the true God to the Turkish people. Jesus, we pray for our missionary friends in Thailand, that you would help them see the fruit of their ministry. Our prayers are simple, but heard by God and therefore effective.

Finally, we dig into the food before us, using chopsticks when appropriate, and occasionally even eating with our hands (the kids always seem to love that!). One of my favorite memories was when we asked the girls’ piano teacher to join us for dinner. When I sent the invitation, I asked her about her heritage. “German,” she wrote back with enthusiasm. So, Germany became my focus that week. The menu options were plentiful, but finally I settled on bratwurst and German red cabbage, with peach kuchen for dessert! It was a hit and we enjoyed exploring our piano teacher’s heritage that night.

Other tasty highlights of past International Nights include Lebanese chicken and potatoes, Canadian white fish and bannock, Moroccan tagine, and Pakistani Kima. Occasionally, the recipes require ingredients I don’t normally keep in my kitchen, so planning ahead is important. But in all honesty, sometimes real life gets in the way of my best intentions and I’m just desperate to get food on the table! There’s nothing wrong with serving spaghetti and praying for Italy, or even serving sloppy joes and praying for the United States! We’ve done that too!

Positive Outcomes

Since we began this tradition five years ago, I’ve seen my daughters develop a keen interest in other cultures and a concern for people of other religions. A few summers ago we were visiting the Columbus Zoo. My middle daughter pointed out a Muslim woman and her daughters who were all wearing traditional Muslim chadors. “Why are they dressed like that, Mom?” she inquired. I explained that in some cultures those robes are necessary for modesty and represent an adherence to Islam. “So they don’t know Jesus?” she asked.

“No, probably not” I replied, “and that’s why we pray for Muslims around the world, because there are many Muslims who don’t understand who Jesus is.” A bit later, I looked down to find this same daughter fighting back tears. “What’s wrong, Bryn?” I asked.

“Mom, I just started thinking about all the people who are walking around the zoo right now who might not know about Jesus, and that just makes me so sad!” It makes me sad too! So we continue to pray for our neighbors around the world who haven’t yet had the opportunity to hear about Jesus.

Another positive outcome of this tradition is my daughters’ willingness to try new foods. Squid, octopus, curry, or tofu? They love it all! Pad Thai, coconut curry, or bang bang chicken? Those are some of our favorites! I considered it a win recently when my twins requested Red Thai Curry Chicken for their birthday dinner. I was happy to comply!

Getting Started

If you are interested in implementing this idea into your family’s dinner routine, I encourage you to give it a try! This tradition doesn’t require an overhaul to your recipe collection! In fact, you are probably already cooking more meals with an international flair than you realize, so start there. How about your favorite pasta dish, or maybe rice and beans in the crock pot? Do you have recipes from your mother or grandmothers that honor your own heritage? Some of my favorite resources for international recipes are More with Less and Extending the Table but as you know, the Internet is loaded with recipe ideas with step-by-step instructions. So don’t be intimidated by fancy recipe titles or unusual ingredients! This is very doable regardless of the level of your cooking skills and no matter what your schedule is like. Once you start to see your recipe collection through “international eyes” it will be easier to implement international meals into your weekly repertoire.

The second part of this tradition is learning about and praying for the nations. Again, I encourage you to keep this simple as you get started. For really young children, maybe coloring a picture of another nation’s flag is a good start. As your children get older, it is easier to introduce more topics to the discussion. We discuss other world religions and what they say about Jesus. We talk about the persecuted church and how many of our brothers and sisters around the globe are being severely oppressed because of their love for Jesus. The more we understand about another culture, the more specifically we can pray for that nation and the missionaries who are working there.

The Greatest Payoff

Our family is wrapping up our time in Ohio. We are selling our possessions and preparing to say goodbye as we follow God’s call to Bangkok, Thailand. This is not an easy process! But all three of our daughters are excited about moving to a world city and having the opportunity to interact with people from across the globe. I am convinced they are better prepared for the next season of our lives than they would have been without our International Nights. Whether you have any intention of living overseas or not, your prayers for unreached people groups are important! With that in mind, I hope you’ll consider using your dinner table to introduce the world to your family.

A Few Other Tips for International Night

When the girls were really small, I bought each of them a set of training chopsticks (available on Amazon). I highly recommend this!

Take it easy on the spices when you get started! Sometimes spices can get really hot as they simmer and their flavors are allowed to develop. I keep sour cream or Greek yogurt on hand in case I get a little overzealous with the spices.

Several books which our family has found helpful: Window on the World by Daphne Spraggett and Jill Johnstone; Stories from Around the World; Peoples of the World; and The Children’s Picture Atlas, all from Usborne Books.

RMM’s cookbook, The World at Your Table, compiled by Susannah Fath Cotman, is another great resource for accessible international recipes. You can purchase a copy at the RMM office, at the Rosedale International Center, or visit http://cookbook.rmmweb.org/

Vicki, along with her husband Conrad and three children, Bryn, Lydia, and Ellie, plan to move to Bangkok, Thailand in January 2015. They will join the RMM team there to work at relationship building, discipling, and church planting. Vicki was on a REACH team in 1996 to Israel and has traveled in Southeast Asia while researching human trafficking in that part of the world. She is currently completing work on a master’s degree in Intercultural Studies from Hope International University. In her spare time she is packing up her house in preparation for her family’s upcoming move!