The world on the table: creating an expatically correct menu

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I never thought there could be a correct way to set a menu. Food is food, it just has to be good, right? Then one day, several years ago, a bunch of Belgians looked down on me when I served them polpette (meatballs) covered in marinara sauce. I had spent a whole afternoon making them out of beef, pork and veal and cooking the freshest tomatoes in order to achieve the healthiest and tastiest possible outcome. It turned out meatballs, in Belgium, are considered a student’s food. The sort of stuff you gulp down without thinking with your flatmates at 22. Definitely not something fit for a grown-ups’ dinner table.

I barred meatballs from my home dinners. The following time I went for a home made green lasagna followed by roasted veal, sauté vegetables and pudding. The Belgians guests ran for the lasagna, had a couple of servings and then looked at me puzzled and terrified when I came out of the kitchen with the rest of my carefully planned Italian dinner. Nay. Apparently no one can master a whole Italian meal. “We thought lasagna was the dinner”, one girl said. Ok, fine, I keep learning.

A standard Belgian dinner is composed of a soup (usually in the form of a velouté, i.e. blended vegetables with sometimes a hint of almond paste to add texture), a meat or fish main course accompanied by vegetables and/or potatoes and a dessert usually consisting in crème caramel, fruit crumble or ice cream. Something simple and fresh, practical and easy to put together. I obliged and am now strictly following this sort of menu anytime I invite locals.

The problem is that it doesn’t work for everybody else. Italians will feel dismissed if presented with some blended vegetables followed by a portion of meat and an unoriginal, everyday-style dessert. They will think I made no effort because I don’t care enough about my guests. For them, I lay out the big weapons. The whole big fat Italian dinner.

French will expect cheese to be served after the main course, just before dessert. I don’t like cheese. I had to spend a whole afternoon in a smelling cheese shop with a Parisian friend and note down which sort of cheeses you should always offer and in what quantity. If there’re French around, I go through my little cheese and salad memorandum and I look at my phone to check the time every ten seconds. A tour of cheese after meat and before dessert makes a dinner just a tad too long.

Spanish friends will have endless drinks before finally settling for dinner so you should fill your little cups with plenty of tapas.

Of course, one could just serve whatever is in the fridge and stop caring about respecting individual food sensitiveness. But I am Italian after all and feeding people is in my genes, so I spend time composing the expatically correct menu.

One of my close friends rang me today to ask me to be her caterer for her daughter’s christening. Her first choice – a professional chef – bailed on her and since she can’t fry an egg, she called me to rescue.

A few years ago I was so interested in the food business that I taught Italian traditional cooking for a semester, twice a week. I had more time then and a lot of fun though most of my Belgian students were more interested in having a well deserved glass of wine at the end of a long work day than in learning the basics of a good mamma’s meal.

At the end of that experience I realized I didn’t have the necessary patience to teach but I started toying with the idea of starting a catering business. I never did, fearing that the transforming my hobby in a profession would mean the end of my love affair with food.

These days I cook less and less and I seldom approach Italian traditional dishes. But I can’t resist a call to the kitchen. So I’ll do it. The real challenge will be now to compose the perfect international menu, staying faithful to classic Italian staples everybody likes yet revisiting them to suit a Northern European palate. I’ll keep you posted about my culinary mission.

What did you learn about food while living abroad? Which classic dishes you stopped proposing because your guests misinterpret them? 

PS. In case you were interested in those meatballs I talked about, my fellow blogger and friend camparigirl posted a great recipe.

10 comments

  1. You are more obliging than I am! While I try to take into consideration guests’ potential allergies and likes/dislikes, I pick a theme and stick with it. Whatever takes my fancy. And then I launch into elaborate explanations on why we a Victorian dinner, an Italian family style, burgers and pies or just cakes or just tapas. So I shut them up before they know what hit them. I love to feed people but if I had to stick to American rules, it would get too boring.
    Lady of the Cakes, if you are ever in LA, I will feed you meatballs!

  2. When I organize a dinner, I make sure that everybody knows it is going to be Italian style dinner (or East-European variation, if Husband is cooking). In both cases, meals are heavy. Period.
    Skip lunch before coming, skip a course, ask for a smaller portion, skip all your meals the day after.
    I don’t care.
    At my table you get proper Italian (or East-European) food.
    People who tried to complain because they expected some Dutch-style version of Italian dishes are buried in the garden 😛

    I haven’t stopped cooking anything for my guests, but I have to admit I have never had anybody reacting like your guests (probably because they heard the legend of the corpses buried in the garden). Which I actually find pretty rude, because Mummy taught me that when you are a guest, you sit and eat and compliment the food and that’s it.
    What I really had to learn abroad was to deal with vegetarian dishes (not too difficult in reality, but it seems to become more difficult when you are forced into it) and allergic guests.
    I never met anybody allergic or vegetarian before going abroad, and now it looks like everybody has something. And Husband has become obsessed with sugar. No white sugar is allowed in the kitchen anymore.

    PS: thanks for the meatball recipe.Husband loves meatballs and still complains I do not serve them with spaghetti (I keep a corner of the garden free for his corpse…meatballs and spaghetti…)

    1. ahahahah. You made me laugh! Spaghetti with meatballs, the celebrated Italian dish!
      As for my guests, the first time they just showed no reaction whatsoever beside a “Ohhh! Meatballs…” and then The Husband explained me later the whole story about meatballs not being admitted into the Olympus of proper dinner food. The second time they actually almost fainted after the first course….and kept telling people around about my massive feasts, prompting me to cut down the amount of food and effort..What sort of East European food do you cook? I am intrigued.

      1. Goulash and Halusky are the most requested by the guests.
        The problem with East-European food is that it takes a long time to prepare (like very traditional Italian dishes – gnocchi or brasato, for example).
        I always keep an eye on slovakcooking.com and last Christmas I finally found an English-Slovak cooking book… so now I can really try by myself, instead of waiting for Husband to be willing to spend his Saturday/Sunday afternoon in the kitchen.

        I have also cut the portions and number of courses. Usually we have a huge appetizer, one main course and dessert. But when we are among Italians, I usually skip the appetizers and have a proper roasted meat or a “second” dish.
        Once I made home-made lasagna and, as the guests were American, I surrendered and prepared a salad, but I didn’t serve it together. Just put the bowl of salad on the table.
        Nobody took the salad, they said it would be a waste to ruin the taste of the food.
        So there is hope 🙂

  3. My experience of having dinner at friends’ houses in Rome is that hosts usually just serve fruit for dessert then maybe a shop-bought tiramisu or similar. But in the UK, people go all out to bake a fancy pudding or cake.

    I would ALWAYS find meat-balls acceptable!

  4. Alas your no doubt fabulous meatballs would be wasted on me! (Veg)

    We had a classic clash of culinary cultures in Mumbai many months ago when a young friend from Mexico – with a special horde of ingredients her mother and brother brought when they visited – decided to use our home and kitchen to make the special treat of an authentic Mexican dinner for friends.

    We had tequila, guests and a day of prep with everything made from scratch. The food was amazing… Except everyone thought they were eating only appetisers…

    In the end I had to quickly order biryani from a local restaurant and pull left overs out of my fridge!? Aaarrghhh!!!

  5. Great post – really made me think about the family style type serving in China vs. individual plates – plus not really having dessert. Maybe I should do a post on it!

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