When I lived in Ukraine, I had a couple of dining experiences that I have never had in the U.S. The most remarkable was a youth conference I attended at our church there. The basement was stuffed with teens from all over our region, most of them complete strangers. On the long tables, for every four people, there was a bowl of potatoes with meat. Each person had a utensil and that’s it. No plates. We just dug in and ate out of the communal bowl with people we had never clapped eyes on before that moment. Some of you may be fighting a gag reflex right now. But the truth is that it brought about a sense of community and familiarity that would not have been achieved otherwise.
You don’t have to share a bowl to bond over dinner, though. Remember fondue pots? You have probably seen them at thrift stores because back in the day they were all the rage. People sat at a table together making their own food while enjoying relaxing conversation. The pace of the dinner was slower because diners cooked as they ate. The shared experience added a casual vibe and yes, a sense of community. Different cultures have their own versions of this. If you go to a Korean restaurant, you can grill your own Bulgogi, one of my favorite foods. A friend of mine used to have tempura parties, where she used fondue pots to make delicious fried everything! Another one of these community, cook-at-the-table ideas comes from the Swiss, the modern version of raclette.
When I was in high school, I had the privilege of being an exchange student in Munich for a month. My host family, the Pfeifer’s, introduced me to what became my favorite meal there, raclette. It was so simple that it was genius. It consisted of boiled potatoes, sliced cheeses, seasoned salt and the essential raclette maker. So, what is it, exactly? A raclette machine is a two-tiered electric appliance. The top has a griddle that can be used for cooking or just keeping things warm. The lower tier has a heating element and individual non-stick trays. You simply put slices of cheese on your tray, melt them in the machine, pour that over your potatoes, then sprinkle it all with seasoned salt. A certain someone in my life thinks you could just stand next to a microwave and get the same result. If your desired outcome is melted cheese, of course he is right. But I don’t get the same sense of community by waiting in line at the Radar Range. (Yeah, that dates me.)
When I lived in Ukraine, I bought myself a raclette machine for $7 at a Hungarian flea market. But I couldn’t use that machine in the U.S. so I splurged on the William’s Sonoma version.
Of course, soon after I got it, we decided white potatoes and loads of cheese weren’t too good for us, so it gained the “maybe we should sell it” status. But whenever I do pull it out, the kids love it and so do I. It takes me back to my summer in Germany plus it just tastes great! The hubs can get behind it if I involve meat. So, we embellish with sausages, ham, or bacon. You can actually do a lot with the machine and I have a whole cookbook to prove it. But sometimes, life’s simple pleasures are the best!