YES Programs



Washburn High Celebrates International Flavor

Saudi Ahmed

Photo: Ahmed Ahmed of Saudi Arabia, copyright County Journal

This article was originally published in the Bayfield County Journal, Washburn, WI
By Julie Buckles, Staff Writer, County Journal
WASHBURN — When Washburn’s food services director Patti Holman received an email from the mother of AFS student Jen Erbetta for risotto (or something like it for which there’s no English word), she scratched her head.
Holman had sat down with Erbetta weeks before and penned a menu that would represent Erbetta’s home country of Switzerland. Erbetta laughed and said she could convert the measurements from metric to cups and teaspoons.
“Oh, honey the problem isn’t metric, it’s that it’s in Italian,” responded Holman.
And so Erbetta converted the recipe from Italian to English and Holman got to work. She researched ingredients, found ingredients, figured out a substitute for wine, and experimented with recipes. Then she and her staff spread red tablecloths and served students, family style.
Students speared and fried bread and cheese fondue-style, paused with salad and risotto and finished with chocolate fondue and strawberries. They were given an hour for lunch — double their usual allotted time, but two hours less than a typical Swiss fondue session.
“Fondue is social,” said Erbatta. “It usually takes a long time.”
Afterward, students stood and clapped for the kitchen staff.
“Patti asked us for our typical food,” says Erbatta of the process, “and she cooked it so every student in the school (would) know what we are.”
This is just one meal of eight that Holman and her staff have pulled off in the last two weeks, each one to honor the foreign exchange students at Washburn High School. They’re cooking comfort foods — just not for Americans but for kids from Kenya, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Colombia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Russia and the Netherlands.
Six of those are AFS students, one came through International Cultural Exchange Services (ICES USA) and another — Kamron van Donkersgoed — is from the Netherlands but has attended Washburn schools since the fourth grade.
It brings the world to Washburn," said AFS coordinator Lynn Adams. “A lot of kids don’t have the chance to travel anywhere. This is a way to experience the culture.”
Adams actually brought the idea of a meal for the AFS students to Holman “and that’s all it took,” said Holman, who took it to new levels and beyond. She started with lunches and this year added breakfasts.
The morning following the standing ovation, the high school smelled of mouth-watering curry and other exotic blends.
“Stir for three minutes until the smell so Kenya fill your house,” Patti read from the Kenyan pilau menu she found on the Internet. A combination of potatoes, rice, onions, black-eyed peas with cinnamon, cumin, cardamom and raisins, it’s a food that is familiar to Esmat. She couldn’t find one that had both rice and potatoes so she’s improvising.
The kitchen crew brought in their own spices so not to spend money on spices rarely used, and they’re using a special blend of handmade curry made by local resident Ulf Gafvert.
The kitchen is a flurry of activity. There’s boiling black-eyed peas, rice and potatoes. There’s curried chicken heating, pastry shells thawing — not to mention, they’ve started the beef for Monday’s Russian meal.
“It’s a little crazy but it’s so fun and this is how I like to cook,” said Kirsten Pederson.
Holman’s mom, Winnie Plizka, helped out as a volunteer. She and Rena Zifko peel plantains, a banana-like fruit, and set them in lime juice. “There’s a lot of busy work today,” Plizka says to explain her volunteerism.
Once the plantains are done, Plizka and Zifko turn to scooping chicken curry onto pastry squares and assembling 390 samosas (typically it would be closer to 500, but there’s field trips planned).
Holman and Pederson call Shelali in for a consult. Shelali comes from the city of Mombassa, Kenya’s oldest and second-largest city. His first language is Swahili though his English has improved in the last eight months.
He approves the mashed plantains, curry and pilau, then heads up to the library to give a short slideshow and presentation on Kenya, his family and his friends to his classmates.
“I know Italy but nothing about Kenya and Saudi Arabia,” Holman said. “It’s fun to sit down with the kids and learn about how they do food.”
Shelali and Ahmed are part of a specific program within AFS called Youth Exchange and Study Program (YES), a high school exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. This public diplomacy initiative hopes to build bridges of international understanding, especially between Americans and people in countries with significant Muslim populations.
The cultural aspect of the meal was a major piece of the International meals and Saudi Arabia — one of the last meals in the series — proved to be the most exotic.
In Saudi Arabia, the men eat first. They sit on the floor for their meal, which they eat with their hands (and using bread).
And so did Washburn’s high school students. At 11:15, the tables had been pushed aside and blankets placed on the floor. The boys arrived and Ahmed Ahmed appeared in traditional garb.
He walked from blanket to blanket talking to students, teachers and guests about this custom and demonstrated proper sitting procedure.
“He’s very proud of his country,” said host mom Christina Sauer, watching from the sideline.
“All of these kids will go home and remember this,” said Lisa Abeles-Allison, host mom to Shelali. “That the school had a day just for them.”
The boys ate curried chicken and rice, hummus, pita, vegetable kabobs and watermelon and then departed to make way for the girls. Student Jake Liphart gave the meal his endorsement, as he walked away.
“We have to do this more often,” he said, wiping his mouth. “That was really good.”
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