Cheesy Delights and Places that Mark Us {Book Club}

I have the delightful privilege of starting my Monday mornings with a group of six other single women serving around the world. I’m a huge fan of Connection Groups, and the inspiration and encouragement I receive is beautiful.

This last week we spent a good 15 minutes at the start of our Zoom call talking about cheese. I’m not kidding.

It started with a conversation about Starbucks and the lengths we will go to get to one, and then evolved into how the countries we call home include cheese in drinks and other, um, interesting ways. Melted cheese in hot chocolate. Cheese powder in a latte. Bright orange cheesy ice cream.

I love cheese, for sure—I was raised on a dairy farm and have a great appreciation for all dairy products. My limited American palate cringes a bit at these strange uses of cheese. I also felt rather unrefined this week because I’ve never even heard of most of the varieties of cheese mentioned in our section in Mastering the Art of French Eating by Ann Mah.

Have you ever tried fondue? I have to admit I have not, but I enjoyed learning about it this week, and the specificity of cheese production. Mah takes us on her journey of trying fondue with friends and learning the dos and don’ts of fondue etiquette. Never drink water with fondue. Kirsch and Fendant wine are best. Pineapple helps with digestion. Chocolate fondue does not follow cheese fondue.

In this chapter, Mah invites a couple she met through food blogging to her home to make dumplings for Chinese New Year. As an introvert, making friends can be challenging no matter what culture I’m in. It’s hard to be the initiator, not knowing how the invitation will be received. By the end of Mah’s dumpling making adventure, though, she had forgotten that these people were strangers to start with.

Last week we celebrated Velvet Ashes’ 8th birthday, and this section reminded me about the gift of strangers turned friends. While forging friendships through technology in our community certainly has its challenges, it also allows us to make connections around the globe. I’ve gotten to meet several women in person from VA and there are many I really hope to meet one day. Sometimes I actually forget we haven’t yet! It’s delightful to get to walk through life with women who understand without having to sound weird in the explaining.

When we serve in another culture, we are this beautiful and odd mixture of all the places that dig their way into our hearts. I loved this quote from chapter seven: “I’d lived in all three countries, and each had left its mark on me—America most widely and deeply, of course, but also France and China, too. I would always define myself as an American, and I would always fold dumplings at Chinese New Year, and I would always enjoy a bit of cheese between my main course and dinner.”

We are marked by these places, the people we meet, the customs that become familiar and beloved. We have new favorite foods, new opinions or perspectives, even scars that we take with us when we move on to the next place. I will always rejoice when I find Thai jasmine rice these days, and keeping my shoes on in the house still feels weird sometimes. I love celebrating Thanksgiving no matter what country I’m in, and I will probably always get a bit teary when the airplane skims the Missouri River to land at the Omaha airport.

What about you? In what ways have the places you’ve called home left their mark on you? What else stuck out to you from these chapters?

We’ll finish up the book next week!

November 23: Chapters 9-10, Epilogue

November 30: Giving Tuesday (no reading)

In December we will be reading some sweet holiday short stories and chatting about our favorite books of 2021!


  1. Rachel Kahindi November 15, 2021

    All the talk of cheese was awesome! I have had fondue, but an American version, which in sure is appalling to those who know proper fondue.

    I so related to Ann’s thoughts on loneliness and finding friends – realizing that even if her husband were with her, she would still need friendships.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann November 16, 2021

      We all need friends, don’t we? No matter our stage in life or relationship status. 🙂 Sometimes I think having a built in best friend (in a husband) would make everything easier- and maybe it does- but it doesn’t take away the need for other relationships and friendships.

    2. JoyH November 26, 2021

      Women friendships–I didn’t realize what I was missing until we spent a few unexpected years in the US, and I made some special, sweet friends at our church who’ve kept in touch since our return overseas. Our earlier years in Nepal started directly after marriage, and for various reasons I didn’t have many close friends that I could keep in touch with since I wasn’t on social media, and they didn’t email much. The Lord did give me one of the dearest friends I’ll ever have in another American wife right here. We each had four children at about the same times, homeschooled with the same curriculum, and were able to get together monthly for play and chatting.

  2. Bayta Schwarz November 17, 2021

    I’ve been pondering as well how foods are one expression of the mark places and cultures leave on us. And I do not mean the calories 😉 Just yesterday, a Spanish friend and I were talking about our favourite British foods. I realised it’s about so much more than just enjoying the taste (though I do). Each of the dishes we mentioned reminds me of times, places, and people. So different from foods I might have tried and liked in a restaurant but that have no memories attached to them!

    1. Sarah Hilkemann November 18, 2021

      So true, Bayta! My memories of different foods in Cambodia are often tied to the people- the auntie who had a little breakfast stand and her delicious pork and rice. My house helper’s curry.
      That’s lovely that you got to remember your favorite British foods with a friend. 🙂 What are your British favorites, by the way?

      1. Bayta Schwarz November 18, 2021

        Oh there are many! Some of the ones we talked about were traditional roast dinner, full English breakfast, hot cross buns, and mince pies. Ok, now I’m feeling hungry and homesick… 😉

  3. JoyH November 26, 2021

    Well, my copy got returned to the library, but then I was able to recheck it out, so I am a little behind.

    I have had fondue a few times since my Mom had a set when we were young, and once went to The Melting Pot, a chain fondue restaurant, but never in France.

    Rice is certainly a part of our family eating where it wouldn’t have been if we’d never left the US. I never knew there were so many types! And, we are rice snobs when in the US, preferring only a nice long-grain. Twice a day rice and lentils are eaten here, mostly, that is, but some people eat roti (chapati, tortilla-like) instead of rice, or eat a different grain that grows in the higher hills. In fact, when you see someone in the morning where we Americans would say, How are you?, Nepali where we live ask, “Bhaat khayo?” Did you eat rice? Or if it is too early for that, Chiya khayo? Did you have tea?

    Speaking of…chiya (chai) is certainly a part of my life! During our travels in the US I’ve made many chiya converts. A delicious, hot cup of milky, sweet, spicy tea. Mmmm, I just finished one right now.

    Momos (Tibetan meat-filled dumplings) are a favorite of our children, especially, but I don’t turn them down. Paneer, a type of cheese that is cooked where you might put meat. Lots of greens, in fact my winter garden is bursting with them now. Bok choy, spinach, raiyo, the last being a quintessential Nepali winter food. You can’t visit someone without them trying to send you home with saag (greens) from their garden.

    1. Sarah Hilkemann November 29, 2021

      Joy, ooh, this all sounds so yummy! I recently started making chai from scratch and it is so delightful. Probably not as good as what you can get though!

      I laughed about your “rice snob” comment- I’m totally the same way! I had NO idea about all the different kinds of rice until I lived in Southeast Asia. Now I crave good rice and am ridiculously delighted when I find Thai Jasmine rice. 🙂

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