Wednesday, May 9, 2012

"I always thought the white stuff was cheese!"

So here was my menu for American night, and a rundown of the reactions to the various foods.

Chili Dip
Cocktail meatballs

Arnold Palmer

Mashed potatoes & gravy
Green beans
Baked beans

Main Courses
Chicago-Style hot dogs
Meatloaf & gravy
Pulled pork sandwiches
Baked mac and cheese
Chicken pot pie turnovers

Ice Cream pie with Oreo crust
Chocolate chip cookies
Peanut Butter balls

I know it sounds like a lot. There were 14 people including myself, and I wanted to make some food I know they probably haven´t had before, so I got a random sampling of stuff that I thought was very "American," and therefore went a little overboard. Yes, there were leftovers.

Let´s start at the beginning. I felt very much like my dad on Thanksgiving, with food already in the oven before people came over, and a list planned out for the "schedule of events" aka "when to put stuff in the oven and take it out." I also felt very much like my dad, shooing people out of the kitchen while trying to be a friendly host at the same time.

Everyone arrived late, which was fine because I was running a bit behind schedule. Being Spain, I already planned for the lateness (they were supposed to arrive by 8:30...the first guests got there at 9 or 9:15). I set out the punch (strawberry, cranberry and apple juices, sliced lemons and lemon-flavored soft drink) and the iced tea/lemonade for the Arnold Palmers. I instructed them to bring Budweiser, which they all seemed to bring, so there was a huge abundance (You can find Budweiser in most supermarkets, even Mercadona, which is a bare bones grocery store). I also had the guacamole and meatballs out within the first 10 minutes of people arriving, but despite my efforts of forcing people towards the food and out of the kitchen, they all remained, asking the frazzled me if I needed any help. "EAT! That is how you can help!" Being Spaniards, they just stood around another half hour chatting and catching up until the tenth time I notified them of food on the table and they reacted for the first time. "Oh look, food!" I don´t know how my dad does it.

Most of them wore T-shirts with American themes. Cristina, Mari Carmen, and Laura all wore New York t-shirts, and Pichon wore the Chicago Fire jersey I got him back during Christmas. No hot dog or cheerleader costumes, though, as they previously had mentioned.

Also, everyone (mostly egged on by Mari Carmen) would applaud me or cheer me on any time I brought something out, or they tried something they liked. "Ohh, Chili dip! APPLAUSE FOR MELISSA!" "Ooh, punch, yum. ME-LIS-SA! ME-LIS-SA!"

I made the punch due to requests by Monica and some of Cristina's friends, since they have all seen big bowls of some fruity drink at parties and always wondered what it was. Despite my efforts to tell them that any juice+fizzy drink=punch, they all asked for the specifics of how they could make some at home. Laura enjoyed the Arnold Palmers, saying they were "refreshing" and she also thought it was entertaining that they were a "typical golfer's drink" as I told her.

I was a bit afraid of the reception of the chili dip, but once everyone tried it, they all dug in for more. I got the impression that no one had heard of canned chili.

The cocktail meatballs I think were met with a bit of confusion, since meatballs scream "main course" as opposed to "appetizer." Also, the meatballs I bought were huge, so I guess that assumption was warranted. Mayte's boyfriend kept asking what flavors were in the sauce, and even though I said "just raspberry jelly and chili sauce" he kept asking where the BBQ flavor was coming from. They also enjoyed the guacamole, as evident by the almost empty bowl by dinnertime. Cristina helped me make it, and when I gave her the task of cutting the avocados, she confessed that she's never cooked avocados before, and has no idea how to peel/cut them (although I think that's pretty reasonable even in the states, since avocado is still pretty uncommon). I showed her how, and she seemed to enjoy it. She called Lucas and Lucia into the kitchen when she scooped the pit out and told them "LOOK HOW HUGE THIS PIT IS!" And Lucas just stood there, staring at it, saying how he couldn't see it. You see, he thought the pit was the AVOCADO, and thought he couldn't see the seed.

On to the main courses.

First I pulled out the meatloaf, which was ginormous (stuff is sold by kilos here...which is 2.2 lbs. Therefore, this meatloaf was almost 2 lbs). That was recieved by positive reviews (and applause). I also set out pulled pork sandwich rolls on plates, then brought out the crunchy fried onion to sprinkle on top. Maria's boyfriend, Josep, was like "And what is that you are sprinkling on top? MAGIC?!" However, he seemed to be one of the odd men out because most of the people had seen crunchy onions before, although they'd never used them. The pulled pork sandwiches were one of the most popular things of the night. Laura and her husband were gushing over how good it was and how great it made the kitchen smell. "WRITE DOWN RECIPES" is what Juan kept telling Laura.  I have to say, I think I did an excellent job. I boiled the meat on low heat for 3 hours or so, and it was falling off the bone. I then threw in BBQ spices and sauce and caramelized onions. So yummy.

Josep was curiously watching in the kitchen as I dictated to Mayte to boil the hot dogs. He asked me "Is it common to boil hot dogs?" (Here, everyone pan-fries them...with a little olive oil). "In your house, yes, if they aren´t on the grill.  At restaurants they grill them or steam them." Then as I assembled the hot dogs in the kitchen, I hear Josep telling someone "I am learning...'Americans do not fry their hot dogs.'" They hot dogs wore a heavy helping of dill pickles, onions, tomatoes, mustard, and relish. I didn´t put on celery salt or sport peppers, as I menioned in my previous post. As I was assembling them, Josep was like "But in the states, this is all mixed together in a sauce, right?" "Nope, this all goes on top, in a Chicago-style hot dog." Maria was confused. Mari Carmen clarified, "estilo Chicago."  They couldn´t believe that all this stuff is thrown on top of a hot dog. Monica came in the kitchen while I was finishing up putting condiments on the second plate, with a half-eaten hot dog in her hand. "THIS IS REALLY GOOD."

I also made baked mac and cheese, but to be honest, I was a bit disappointed with how it turned out. As with everything I made that night, I winged it as far as recipes go. I put more noodles in the mac and cheese, and in a wider dish. I think they turned out very dry. No one said anything bad, though. They just kept saying how everything was "SO GOOD" or "MUY BUENO." When I was preparing the mac and cheese and the chili dip the day before, Lucia had an affinity for the "orange cheese,"  (cheddar) which she had never tried before. I would give her shredded cheese if she did favors for me. "Will you put this in the downstairs fridge for me? I´ll give you some orange cheese if you do!"

During dinner, Mari Carmen and her husband kept using English. It was pretty entertaining for me and pretty much everyone else. "WILL YOU PASS ME POTATOS?" "YES, OF COURSE." "PLEASE GIVE ME THAT CUP." "YES I WILL." At the end of the night, Marina asked "WHO WILL BRING ME HOME NOW? Good, yes?"

I also had mashed potatoes (which were just those packets of potato flakes where you add milk and water). Here it's called "potato puree" and I think had a bit of a negative image, because come on, who eats puree except for babies and old people who don't have teeth? I can see why they were hesitant.

The baked beans were met with curiousity, proof that no one has had baked beans before. "What is this, beans? What sauce is this?"

Instead of pot pie, I wanted to make something more small-portion friendly, so I made turnovers instead (like pizza pockets with chicken pot pie filling instead!). I put them in the oven for what seemed like forever, but the dough was raw every time I pulled them out. The filling was already cooked, so it was just the dough I was concerned about. Cristina finally came to my rescue when she noticed the oven wasn´t hot enough. I had everything cooking at 175 C (350 F), including the turnovers. Thing is, the dough package said to bake the dough at 300C. 572F?!?! That is an insane amount of heat and I don´t think I have ever cooked anything at that high of a temperature, let alone PASTRY DOUGH. So those weren´t served, since they came out after dinner was pretty much over. But we sent some home as leftovers.

Monica and others were asking if there was anything else "Not that I am not full enough already, I just need to know if I should save some stomach room for more food." "Yes, there is dessert." Then I brought out the cookies (applause), brownies (applause), ice cream pie (applause), smores (applause) and peanut butter balls (cheers and chants).  Everyone's eyes were big at the sight of all the sweets. Sweets, I have noticed, don´t get the same reception as they do in the states. It could be because we are already familiar with brownies and cookies and aren't trying for the first time so we just dig in. Or it could just be because people here aren't usually that into sweets and take one 1-inch (yes, they were tiny) brownie and say "that's it for me." Are you kidding me? I bring out a plate of brownies at my brother's baseball game and they are gone in 5 minutes. I had leftovers!!! But then again, I made lots of desserts...

The chocolate chip cookies had Lacasitos, which are a Spanish equivalent of M&Ms. I had Lucia help me separate out red, white (yes they have white ones) and blue Lacasitos to make the cookie mix extra patriotic. No one ever complains about more chocolate. Also, chocolate chip cookies here are not common, if you didn´t already know. Instead of calling them "galletas," which is pretty much the Spanish word for cookie (they call Oreos "galletas", for example), they call them "cookies", the English word itself. But "cookie" literally refers to a chocolate chip cookie, and pretty much nothing else. "Galleta" can refer to a cracker, a "biscuit"(as the Brits say), or, as mentioned above, an Oreo.

The peanut butter balls, which taste like a spherical Reeses PB cup (yes, they taste spherical. Don't correct me). But here, since they have Lacasitos, people think of M&Ms as the peanut M&Ms, so everyone kept saying how the PB balls tasted like "M&Ms." It was just implied that they were referring to the peanut butter ones, since although regular M&Ms exist, the peanut ones are more popular. But again with the sweets, it was like "one and done" with the PB balls.

Then I pulled out the Smores. I put the crackers and marshmallows in the oven to puff them up and then took them out, topped them with a milk chocolate square and another cookie. When I squished them down with that top cookie, they were all nice and gooey. I put them on a plate. If I haven´t said it before, marshmallows are hard, if not impossible, to come by. And if you do come across marshmallows, you get one brand, one size, one choice. No colored ones or small ones or store brand vs. Jet-Puffed. Just one bag, that's probably been on the shelf since last year when they stocked them. I got mine at Carrefour, which I previously mentioned as "Target on steroids." I was sooooo excited to see them. I hate marshmallows on their own, but like them for cooking, and this was a mini victory. The smores on the table were met with curiousity and apprehension (except Jose Enrique, who basically said "I broke my diet and I am GOING ALL THE WAY" as he swiped two off the plate). Maria and Josep were sitting next to me and were like "What´s this?" I explained that in American movies (seriously, this is their window to our world), when people go camping, they put white things on sticks and cook them over the fire. "Those white things are marshmallows, and they put them on cookies with chocolate to make smores." Maria asked if that was a typical thing, and I said "ask any American if they know what smores are. If they don´t, I don´t know if they are a true American." Josep just said "OOOOOohhhhhh. I always thought the white stuff was cheese." You know us Americans, roasting cheese over an open fire.

Me being me, I had almost more dessert than dinner. I had a cookie, a brownie, a PB ball, and two smores. Maria only saw me grab the smores, which were closest to our side of the table, and when I reached for the second one (what? they were small!), she was like "ANOTHER one!?!?!" Um, yes. I will eat many, many sweets, until I die a happy, sugar coma death.

Afterwards, we had loads of leftovers, which we split up the best we could in tupperware (Pichon gets free tupperware from his job for some reason, so we had lots of them to go around). The first thing we ran out of was the pulled pork, the hit of the night. Rats. I was really hoping to get some of that for leftovers all week. There was only enough for one sandwich, which I carefully rationed in a little container like it was gold. Mayte loved the idea of leftovers, and grabbed as much as she could, from pretty much every dish. Laura grabbed the BBQ stuff for her and her husband. I told her we could make "doggy bags" (back during fallas, she told me she heard that phrase in the USA when she went to the southwest for her honeymoon). At first she didn´t understand what I was saying, but when I repeated it, she grinned and was like "Sí! Doggy bags! Ha ha!"

During and after dessert, Mari Carmen directed a game of "let's go around the table and each ask Melissa a question" which was mostly "Do you think Spanish boys are cute" and "are you going to miss it here?" "are you anxious to go home?" "Have you learned the lyrics to any Spanish songs?" For that last one, I mentioned "Depende en ti" by Suena de morfeo (I think that's what they're called) and Maria, trying to secretly get me to sing it, was like "Hmm, I don't know that does it go?"

Marina gave me a gift from her Manitas de Plata jewelry brand, which was a super cute (they are all super cute things) pin with a girl with Marie-Antionette-like-hair. I´ll post a picture soon.

After mostly everyone left, Laura and Mari Carmen (and their beaus) were still there, so I pulled out my yearbook which they eagerly looked at. "Is there really a science team?" "Is there really a math team?" I even informed them of my brother Eric's efforts of creating a math team at the school he currently teaches. They were so entertained by the fact that there was a club for almost everything (my high school is a great example, too, being one with nearly 600 students in each grade. We had loads of sports and clubs). We flipped to the bowling team page, and Laura asked "Do they really wear shirts that have their names on them? I recently went to a thrift store and saw those there, along with Hawaiian shirts. You know, Hawaiian shirts are the ones the middle-aged business men in movies wear when they are on vacation or on a break and they don't have to wear business clothes anymore!" I told them of my dad's affinity for Hawaiian shirts, having an entire closet dedicated to them. While looking through various student photos (not the mug photos, but the ones of people doing stuff in class or in clubs), and noticed a lot of students wearing "school shirts." Not the uniform shirts, but the T shirts that say "Class of 06!" or just "Buffalo Grove High School."
 Laura said how it's very distinct that we have those school spirit shirts, and the font and everything is so, I don't know, recognizeable, I guess. I told her I had loads of "school spirit" shirts, and still have a drawer at home with t shirts from class board "Got spirit? It does the student body good" and yearbook "Stampede...YEARBOOK NEVER SLEEPS" and football "Beat Prospect! Let's go medieval on the Knights!" They asked if we ever stole a competing team's mascot (again, like they see in the movies) and I said no (that I am aware of).

Overall, it was a really fun night and it was great sharing all the fun things about my culture with them. It's funny to hear their impressions of our culture (what they see in movies, like huge house parties "Do those really happen where people just keep coming uninvited?!" asked Maria) and what they have never heard of. I would do it again...but probably with less food.

(pictures will come in another post)

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