One of the first treats I learned to bake as a young girl was chocolate chip cookies. My mom made sure we had two homemade cookies in our lunches each day for school, now she makes cookies regularly for her grandchildren, and my sister and I both had hundreds of homemade cookies at our wedding receptions. I suppose you could say cookies are part of our family culture.
Chocolate chip cookies were an aspect of my life I carried with me when I lived overseas. On a short-term college trip to South Africa one of my teammates suggested we make chocolate chip cookies for one of our host families. We chopped up a chocolate bar; she remembered the recipe; we baked. The family enjoyed eating the cookies, and we enjoyed sharing a yummy aspect of our American culture with them.
When I headed to Portugal for the first time in my early twenties, I learned each week a different teacher brought goodies to share with the school staff each Friday. Cookies were immediately part of my “treats to bring” repertoire, and I quickly adapted the mantra, “I’ll bring cookies” for most potlucks because making them felt like home and people always enjoyed them. A BBQ in Ireland, a team Christmas party in Portugal, a youth event in South Africa – chocolate chip cookies provided a way to connect with and serve others.
In the classroom chocolate chip cookies were my bargaining tool. Classroom management was a struggle for me, but I learned the promise of homemade cookies at the end of the week had the ability to bring calm and focus to the craziest of classrooms. My students were from around the world, but all of them devoured the cookies. A couple of the girls were from a culture where baking wasn’t common. One summer day my roommate and I taught them how to bake chocolate chip cookies; a baking lesson was a simple, fun way to continue to invest in their lives and to open the doors for deeper conversations.
Baking overseas, as we know, can require a bit of creativity. Chocolate chips are a precious commodity often imported via the suitcases of friends and family, so I became an expert at chopping up chocolate bars to use in cookies. Shortening wasn’t easy to find either, so I began to exchange butter for shortening. These simple adjustments were frustrating at first, and at least once I thought, “Why can’t other countries have chocolate chips or chocolate chips for a reasonable price?” Yet the inconvenience of chopping up a chocolate bar or two was nothing in comparison to the end results of deeper friendships and a sense of belonging.
Perhaps cookie baking isn’t part of the family culture you brought with you overseas. Perhaps your thing is making soup or bread or salsa or cake. Whatever your cooking or baking specialty is, look for a way to recreate the recipe in your new home. Yes, learn how to make some local recipes and how to enjoy your new home’s food. But don’t underestimate the power of sharing your culture with those around you. When someone here in America offers to make me a meal from their home culture, I look forward to the meal because I know the food will be authentic and delicious, and the same is true for those who enter your home for a meal overseas.
Christmas bread, poppy seed chicken, chocolate chip banana muffins, chili, biryani, Yorkshire pudding – all remind me of homes and meals and memories. Of families who opened their doors and hearts. Of laughter shared and friendship deepened. Favorite family recipes aren’t just for sharing with those from your host country; they also leave a lasting impact on teammates. A significant portion of my chocolate chip cookies were eaten by teammates or short-term teams at lunches or parties or meetings.
At the first potluck lunch at my new job here in the States, I signed up to bring chocolate chip cookies because I knew people would most likely eat them, and I wasn’t sure what people normally brought. Now when I bake and have extra cookies, I fill a plate and take it to work. I smile because the cookies are devoured before the end of the day, and I’ve found baking is a simple way for me to encourage my coworkers.
In keeping with family tradition, I baked a slew of Christmas cookies to give away this year. My husband and I took some to our workplaces, we gave plates full to friends and family, and one evening we took a plate to our downstairs neighbors. When we handed our neighbor the cookies, he was taken aback, and we could tell he was thinking of what he could give us in return. We hurriedly assured him we didn’t expect anything back, and my husband told him, “She loves to bake, and we have plenty of cookies.” What has impacted me most about baking cookies for others is how quickly a plate of cookies breaks down barriers and demonstrates the love of Christ whether I am living in my passport country or abroad.
I’d love to hear your stories of how God has used a favorite food or recipe to help you bridge the cultural gap and/or find your place on a new team; let’s share together in the comments! (Recipes welcome too!)