Food and Migrating Cultures

by Mary Nessim Khair

It took me many years, two children, a variety of friends, and a lot of traveling to develop my cultural palate; to appreciate, and enjoy the variety of flavors that are offered by countries all over the world. Lately, I joined a group of more than sixteen International Mothers who form the International Mothers Club of Southeastern Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

When I arrived in the United States in the late 1960s, from my home in Cairo, Egypt, peanuts were commonly used just for snacks. I came to learn that peanuts are made into peanut butter and served on bread with jelly, mostly to children at lunch time in the United States. As for pancakes, I used to eat them as dessert. They were a thin, round, cake-like pastry filled with jam and cream, rolled and served as a gourmet delicacy. I was awakened to a pancake breakfast at a restaurant when I first arrived in New York. The guest at a table next to mine received a plate with a tall stack of thick, round, and hot doughy pancakes. Along with it came a large helping of butter and a bottle containing a dark, Molasses-like syrup, which he spread between the layers of cake, cut through the tall stack, and then ate. I found out later that pancakes, according to my new home, are what the guest was eating. The syrup was not Molasses, rather it was Maple Syrup. As for the pancakes I ate in Egypt, they were called crepes in the U.S.

Further more, I was always told that savory foods should be eaten first, followed by dessert or a sweet. Never did I hear of a sweet and sour combination before living in America. I developed the taste for it lately, and now I enjoy eating sweet and sour chicken.

As another example, serving turkey was a treat reserved for special guests and special occasions as I was growing up. When I finally understood the holiday in November, Thanksgiving Day, I found out that it has a second name: Turkey Day. Lately, on Thanksgiving Day, I do serve turkey. As for the trimmings, they are not traditional trimmings as the original fathers served, rather, my Thanksgiving table may have a vegetable such as okra or green beans cooked in tomato sauce, Egyptian style. To complete the meal a fresh green salad dressed with fresh mint, lime juice, oil, salt and pepper is served on the side. Another salad is tomato salad prepared with cumin, garlic, salt, and pepper that may accompany the festive dinner. Dessert may be baklava or another sweet usually flavored with cinnamon, or rose-water.

Our children were the eyes, ears, and noses that brought to light the differences in food on our table. They expressed their preferences and choices. As they were growing up they were introduced to our traditional foods at home, but at their friends’ homes they were introduced to peanut butter, hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, and the like.
The food experience, along with other immigration experiences, led me to write the following poem:



Slab the peanut butter on Mrs. Karl’s
Spread the jelly,
Bite, chew, swallow?
My mouth is Poli-Gripped.
“Wash it down with soda.”
My kitchen is aflame with aroma,
Of spicy kebab, minty chicken, cinnamony dessert.
That soothes the senses,
Glides with glee down the throat
To meet a stomach whose juices were aroused,
Awaiting the arrival of a glutton’s satisfaction.
No soda, milk, or juicy drink
Is called upon to wash this down.
Yet, children want to be like those
Who eat their hot dogs, and God knows.
“You cook American?” asks my neighbor.
“No, traditional is on my table.”
Our taste buds frolic on a bridge
Created by joy, food brings.


In addition to issues that have to do with feeding a family with young children, there are also religious obligations that have to do with food. Fasting from meat and dairy products at frequent intervals, as dictated by the Coptic Orthodox Church, is another cultural food adjustment. This adds to the complexity of food preparation for an immigrant family. As a Copt, I observe Lent for fifty five days which is when we do not eat meat, dairy products or fish. Copts depend on a variety of beans, lentil soup, tahini, and babaghnouge as sources of protein. Lent is not the only fast though. After the Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ, as stated in the Holy Bible, the Church dictates another fast where eating fish is allowed. In August, the church also fasts for another two weeks for the Virgin Mother. In addition to all of this the church also fasts every Wednesday and Friday year round with the exception of the fifty days after Easter.

All of these fasts led me to write the following poem:



Help me with the chicken
And a beef slice.
One or the other will not suffice.
Pour the ●molokhia over my rice.
Serve the ◦fatta,
Give me a large helping.
Today we are feasting.
Tomorrow, again we will abstain.
So go ahead and pile up my plate
before it’s too late.


I reached the utmost joy of experiencing global food tasting when I joined the International Mothers Club. The group meets every second Thursday of the month. The sixteen mothers gather at one of the homes. They bring a dish to place on the international table for the members to taste. With the help of each member of the group, I was able to compile a book that contains cultural information from thirteen countries. Each chapter represents a country and contains recipes from that country to conclude the chapter. The book proved interesting to Ms. Jean Feraca of National Public Radio in Madison, Wisconsin. The group was invited for an interview on her program “Here on Earth” on Friday, May 11, 2007, the weekend of Mothers’ Day.

The title of our book is:

Celo Valley Books, ISBN 0-923687-68-8 978-0-923687-68-7
Library of Congress Catalog Card #2006931161

The book has been the subject of several news paper and magazine articles:

M magazine, Milwaukee Lifestyle Magazine February, 2006 issue: Culture Club
Story by: Candace Doyle

News Graphic, Tuesday, February 28, 2006, article by: Renira Pachuta:
New Book Makes the World Smaller, Friendlier

Boomer Magazine: International Mother’s Club by: Catherine Jones

Ozaukee Express: Sharing Cultures While Sharing Foods Story by: Kris Halbig-Ziehm
Thursday, November 9, 2006

My first book, a memoir: From the Banks of the Nile to the Shores of the Great Lakes
Celo Valley Books
ISBN 0-923687-46-7
Library of Congress Catalog Card #97-77838
Articles: News Graphic: 1998 Women’s connection by Kristin Anheier.

Mary Khair

Mequon author comes from the banks of the Nile

News Graphic: Tuesday, January 19, 1999 An exhibit at the local public library


News Graphic: Monday, September 20, 2004

Author/poet starts new group in Mequon

*From the Banks of the Nile to the Shores of the Great Lakes

●A green vegetable soup

◦A dish prepared with fried pita bread cut into small pieces, chicken broth, rice, and meat. The ingredients are layered in an oven dish and served with a dressing of garlic and vinegar.

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Filed under research, vox populi

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