College Preparatory School for Girls Grades 3-12

Head's Notes

Susanna A. Jones

Tuesday night, Holton hosted Mosaic, our annual celebration of community. We have other community celebrations like Blue-White Night, but nothing compares with Mosaic. I say that because Mosaic involves whole families, even grandparents, in the cooking, the creation of displays and the personning of tables groaning with food and decorations representing our heritages. One can acquire that heritage through ancestry – those 18th century Scottish settlers from whom we're descended, or from the country from which we ourselves emigrated; it could be the heritage of the family we married into, or a place we lived for some length of time. It really doesn't matter, because if you want to come and share something of who you are, we're happy to have you as long as you bring food.

This is my tenth Mosaic and I can report that every year I learn something. This year, we had a Sephardic Jewish table. I think of Sephards as coming from Spain or the Netherlands (Dutch Sephardic Jews founded New York City's oldest temple, Congregation Shearith Israel, in 1654), but this family is from the Island of Rhodes. Rhodes conjures up Ancient Greece to me – after all, the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is there – and it turns out that Jews have lived there since biblical times. Jewish exiles from Aragon in present day Spain expanded the population in the 17th century, but Hitler tragically wiped out this ancient community and now just a few dozen Jews live there. A very tasty chicken patty in a savory sauce introduced me to Sephardic Jewish culture.

My second revelation of the evening came from Canada. Being a typical American, I questioned what Canada could contribute to international cuisine, but with four huge Canadian flags (a symbol that would have proved less welcome had a certain hockey series ended differently), they were advertising themselves uncharacteristically prominently and it was hard to pass them by. It turns out that French fries topped with cheese curds (which I love but which one of the Canadians and I agreed one rarely sees in these parts) and then doused in gravy makes for a delicious combination (best, I was told, with a beer, but none of that at school). This somewhat odd combination called "poutine" hails from Quebec. Unquestionably, the French had to come to the new world to come up with such a concoction; it would horrify a Frenchman. If you're in Canada and see it on the menu, try it – you won't be disappointed.

Mosaic comes with many challenges, primarily how to try all the different foods without expiring from gastronomic overkill. The Chinese table, however, had a challenge of another kind. Upon approaching the table – where I went first to avoid missing out on the dumplings which has happened for the last several years – I was handed chopsticks and then a bowl of jelly beans. So many useful and important things have their origins in China – pasta, ice cream, gun powder, fireworks, etc. – however, I do not think jelly beans owe their invention to the Chinese, but maybe I'm wrong. Anyway, it turned out it was a test to see if you could pick up a jelly bean with the chopsticks. After decades of practicing, my chopstick mastery is mediocre at best, so I prepared for embarrassment. Fortunately, I was able to grasp a jelly bean between the two sticks and lift it from the bowl quite quickly. One of the Chinese mothers rewarded me with a pretty fan. I had purposely avoided snacking in the afternoon and arrived at Mosaic hungry. As a result I took two dumplings, a piece of egg roll and a shortbread cookie, about four times more than I should have if I was properly pacing myself. To make matters worse, I ate the aforementioned poutine, hardly a light dish, shortly after the Chinese.

I've noted this before but it's interesting -- if not surprising -- that some types of food appear almost everywhere in the world. The idea of encasing a meat mixture in dough manifests itself in dumplings from China, a spring roll from Thailand, empanadas from Argentina and Puerto Rico, and tortillas filled with chicken and cornmeal from Mexico. Surprisingly, there was no Italian table but many cultures mix meats and vegetables with noodles (and probably have longer than the Italians): the Philippines offered up Pancit, wheat and rice noodles with chicken, while the Koreans had noodles and vegetables, and I didn't sample the noodle dishes at many other countries; noodles serve as the base for the macaroni and cheese at the African-American table and for the light and sweet kugel from Israel, a dish I learned to love at Mosaic several years ago. Substitute rice for noodles and you get kedreh, rice and chickpeas from Palestine. Legumes also figure in many cuisines: besides the kedreh, lentils from Eritrea, yellow split peas from Ethiopia and the same with eggplant from Iran as well as Haaot, Pakistani chickpeas and potatoes. Slowly braised or long marinated meats appeared in a very tasty peanut and chicken stew from Senegal, a savory beef stew from Eritrea, and an almost sweet beef dish from Korea where the meat is marinated for two days. Grinding up meat, adding spices and pressing it together yields a flavorful beef dish from Iran, lamb sausage from India, and haggis from Scotland.

Let's pause briefly to talk about haggis. I'm not sure I've ever had haggis before, but in deference to the spirit of the evening and my belief that one should try anything (I ate chicken feet in China), I agreed to taste it. Spread on toast it was certainly edible, maybe even quite good, though I can't say I'd go out of my way to eat it. The Scottish descendent mom reported that, to her disbelief, she had already run out of "I tried haggis" stickers. Many people – far more than she expected – were willing to try haggis. And that's what Mosaic – and Holton – are about: opening ourselves up to new things to broaden our horizons by exposing us to something unfamiliar. If haggis provides a medium for that, here's to haggis.

As I went around the tables, I tried to save sweets for the end. The silky flan from Venezuela and the highly recommended pastry from Argentina sat on my plate as I toured the world. While I immediately ate the delicious gruyere reportedly smuggled into the U.S. from Switzerland in one of my advisee's suitcases, the chocolate joined the flan and pastry. I added fried dough dribbled with some kind of syrup from Portugal and baklava from Greece. But before I got to the dessert course, the lovely Japanese parents had saved me a plate with three pieces of sushi, some pickled ginger, a piece of chicken and some edamame. Plus, I had to stop at the African-American table where I had a couple of bites of fried fish and at the Irish table where I was so full I only had a small piece of brown bread with the most heavenly butter you've ever tasted. Eventually, while regrettably I hadn't made it to every table, I could eat no more – though there's always room for dessert, which by then included a sweet from Pakistan.

A cup of strong Moroccan tea fragrant with fresh mint leaves proved the perfect way to end an evening of feasting, and, most importantly, joining our families as we generously offered up a little bit of who we are through the universal ritual of a shared meal. As always happens at Mosaic, a number of parents observed how much they love this event – both those who have come before and those who have ventured in for the first time. A new ninth grade mother whom I'm guessing is from India by her and her mother's dress, commented – almost with surprise – on the "positive vibe." It's pride, food, curiosity, teaching and learning, culture, family and community all wrapped into one giant empanada.

A huge thank you goes out to all the volunteers who make this fabulous event come to life each year: Saima Ahmad and Mandana Tavakoli, the chairs for the second year in a row, the country chairs, all the volunteers who created displays, cooked and served as well as those who decorated (I loved the balloons – especially the globes and the doves), as well as Director of Constituent Relations Dani Aronson and all the Development Office staff who help along with the Facilities and cleaning staffs who set up, take down and clean up. It's a very special night that couldn't happen without a community of people working together.

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