How I became an instant international cook

My daughter Johanna and I finished our hamburgers and dumped our soft drink cups and wrappers in the trash.

"Remember, tomorrow's the fifth-grade Christmas Around the World Feast," she said, as we headed to the car.

"Oh, yeah," I said, hoping she didn't notice I'd forgotten. "What is it you're supposed to bring?"

"Anything from Spain," Johanna said.

"Any ideas?" I asked. Did the teacher expect me to be an international cook? The last "foreign" food I'd fixed was Italian spaghetti with Old World Style sauce from a jar. Then I remembered an easy recipe: "I'll make Spanish rice!"

"Ashley's already bringing that."

"You mean more than one kid chose Spain?" Johanna nodded.

"How about tacos?" I asked.

"That's Mexico. Brett has Mexico."

"Is it too late to change countries?" I asked as we got in the car. "If you take China, we can order crab Rangoon at the Golden Bowl drive-through No, wait! France! You can take French fries!" I turned to go back into the restaurant.

Johanna glared. "It has to be from Spain."

"No problem," I said, forcing a smile. "We'll look in my cookbooks."

At home Johanna perched on the end of my bed while I rummaged through the linen closet and found an armload of cookbooks I'd received as gifts from my well-meaning mother and sisters. "There's bound to be something in one of these," I said, spreading them on the bed as if I were dealing poker.

I picked up one at random. Johanna looked over my shoulder as I checked the index and found "Spanish bluebells." The corresponding page showed only a flower arrangement with sprigs of blue on a dining room table. I flipped back to the index and found "Spanish moss." That picture showed a man sprinkling something into a flower bed.

Johanna grabbed the book and checked the cover. "This is a gardening book!"

The real cookbooks in the pile were no help. They listed only Spanish rice.

Becky, my high school daughter, peeked into the room. "What are you guys doing?"

"Hey, maybe you can help," I said, motioning her into the room. "Did you study anything about the cuisine of Spain in your Spanish class? We need a Spanish dish."

Becky shrugged and shook her head, then left the room.

I phoned my mother for a suggestion.

"Spanish rice," she said.

"Ashley's bringing it."

"How about gazpacho?"

"What's in it?" I asked. I repeated the ingredients for Johanna as Mom described cold tomato soup with cucumbers and onion.

"Yuck!" Johanna said. "No one would eat it."

Next, I tried my sister Ann.

"Spanish rice," she said.

"Ashley's bringing it."

"Buy a jar of Spanish olives."

"Are those the green olives or the black ones?" I asked.

Johanna shook her head.

"No olives," I told Ann.

I hung up, and Johanna's hopeful look transformed into one of desperation.

"I'll try Aunt Amy," I said, trying to make my voice sound reassuring.

"Johanna's class is having Christmas Around the World tomorrow, and we need a food from Spain besides Spanish rice, gazpacho, or Spanish olives," I said.

She left me on hold while she consulted her cookbooks. "Sevillian salad," she said when she returned to the phone. "It has rice, onion, and red and green peppers."

I echoed her suggestion. Johanna scrunched her face.

"Anything else?" I asked.

"How about Spanish corn? It's corn with chili powder and olive oil."

"Gross," I said, without consulting Johanna.

"Hold on a minute," Amy said. "Jon went to Spain."

"Honey," she hollered to her husband. "When you went to Spain, what did you eat?" She relayed his reply. "He ate at McDonald's."

At bedtime, we were out of ideas. I tucked in Johanna and told her I'd get something to school in time for the 11:30 a.m. feast.

"Nothing gross, Mom," she said.

The next morning, I hurried to the store to look for something with a Spanish flair. Instead I found skewers of chicken teriyaki, containers of German potato salad, and boxes of Swiss Miss hot chocolate mix. I wished Johanna had chosen Japan. Or Germany. Or Switzerland. Anywhere but Spain.

I steered my cart down every aisle - then retraced my steps.

Then I remembered the treat Johanna had taken to school on her special day in kindergarten. Her teacher had said the children loved it! I gathered the ingredients and picked up some party dip.

At home, I arranged the food on a serving tray and covered it with aluminum foil. Then I searched Becky's room for her Spanish-English dictionary. Carefully, I lettered an index card in Spanish and added phonetic spelling for the teacher (lay-GOOM-brays). Then I rushed to school, with little time to spare.

I walked into Johanna's classroom as though I were a footman presenting treasure to a queen. "Legumbres from Spain," I announced.

Johanna looked relieved. The teacher clasped her hands in delight. "Oh, I'll have to try one!" she said.

I left before the feast began.

After school, Johanna brought home the empty tray.

"Did the kids like the legumbres?" I asked.

"They liked them," she said, smiling. "But they're just vegetables and dip."

"I know," I said, beaming. "They have vegetables in Spain. And now I'm an international cook!"

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