Cultural Exchanges

The Elementary School my younger boys attend is very good at utilising parental knowledge, skills and experience.  It is a very good way of including parents and embedding the school’s connection to the community.  It is also a great way of extending the education of the students, building in extra little titbits and exposing them to things they may have had no awareness of.  As a genuine, bona fide immigrant with a very definite accent, the staff at the school have been making use of me since the kids were enrolled in the school.  This may or may not have something to do with the fact that several of the teachers are entirely obsessed with the ‘Outlander’ series of novels which are set in historic Scotland.

Having read one class a traditional Scottish Traveller’s tale – The Hedgehurst – last year, I extended their knowledge of Scottish literature still further by talking to them about Robert Burns recently.  I was visiting as part of a series on tradition exchanges so the focus of my talk was on Burns’ Night.  I told them about the speeches, toasts and recitations; gave them a brief overview of the languages of Scotland; provided a potted biography of Robert Burns; and I read them excerpts from ‘Address to a Haggis’ and ‘To A Mouse’ in Scots and then provided an English translation.  What most engaged the children, however, was the talk about the food.  They were disgusted yet completely fascinated by the ingredients of haggis.  I assured them that many people find haggis very scrumptious indeed, including the little Pict who is their classmate, but I don’t think anyone was convinced, not one bit.  What’s not to love about sheep’s pluck mixed up with oatmeal and spices and stuffed inside a sheep’s stomach?  When I told them that I had brought a sample of some Scottish food for them to try, their little eyes popped wide open in revulsion and horror.  I quelled their panic by informing them that I had in fact brought small pots of cranachan for them to try.  If you have never heard of it, cranachan is a delectable concoction of cream, raspberries, honey and oatmeal soaked in whisky.  For obvious reasons I had switched the whiskey for vanilla essence.  I think that went down better with the kids than samples of haggis would have done.  In the course of my talk, I had to explain that haggis is illegal in America which is why I could not even provide one for the class to see.  That led to a whole tangent about Mad Cow Disease.  They were captivated by it.  Perhaps next time I should go in and talk to them about my knowledge of diseases (genuinely, one of my nerdy interests is plague).

The following week I was again foisting Scottish victuals onto children.  One of my sons has been working on a unit about different countries of the world and he was assigned Egypt for his project (which led him to  – just for fun – write the story of Osiris from the point of view of Set all written according to the hieroglyphic alphabet).  As part of their studies, the class were having a multicultural feast.  Each student could contribute a food or drink from either their country of study or a country relevant to their own cultural heritage.  As tempted as he was by sticky date treats, my 9 year old decided he wanted to contribute something Scottish to the feast.  I wrote recently about my husband finding a source of British food so he was duly packed off to hunt and gather half a dozen bottles of Irn Bru.  The feast was a huge success and my son enjoyed trying all of the different foods and drinks, several not previously familiar to him.  I am extremely happy to report that the Irn Bru (a Scottish soft drink) was a massive hit with the students.  I am pleased to have had a hand in introducing their tastebuds to an unfamiliar and slightly bizarre flavour.

Those are formal cultural exchanges, of course.  I am, however, also responsible for an informal cultural exchange.  I have been volunteering in my youngest son’s Kindergarten class a few times a week in order to assist the children with learning to write.  This involves me sounding out words to help them figure out which combination of letters to write down to create each syllable and construct each word.  It took me a while to realise that this was leading them to write with a Scottish accent.  There is no emphasis on accurate spelling, just on familiarity with letters and combinations of letters to produce the phonetic sounds of the words.  Therefore, when I was reading their work back, scribing the correct spellings beneath their writing, I was reading in a Scottish accent and as such not noticing that the sounds were wrong for American English.  Their writing was riddled with my clipped vowel sounds and Es in place of As.  Oops.  Since that epiphany, I have been having to adopt an American accent when sounding out certain phonemes.  In return, the children have been helping me remember my American vocabulary and have been correcting me when it comes to my apparent insistence that Z is “zed”.  I am not quite there yet but gradually they will get it fixed in my head that in this country I need to say “zee”.

Very British Hunting and Gathering

Last week my husband arrived home bearing gifts.  While in search of a crop of pretzels to bring home, he had happened upon a store that had a shelf devoted to foods imported from Britain.  When he opened the shopping bag to reveal its contents, the children swarmed around him singing his praises, worshipping at the feet of the father who had hunted and gathered and brought home things they had not tasted in over a year.


For those who are not familiar with it, Salad Cream is like a hybrid of mayonnaise and toxic waste.  As you may gather, I think it is vile.  Mr Pict and our two youngest children, however, are addicted to it.  Properly addicted.  This is unfortunate since, although it is manufactured by Heinz among others, it is not available in the US.  Luckily for them, however, guests from the UK can bring it with them.  That is the price of a visit to us.  They were relieved to discover, however, that they could now buy bottles of salad cream at this store in order to survive the gaps between salad cream bearing visitors.

The beans, it transpired, were not all that dissimilar from the vegetarian baked beans we have been eating since we emigrated.  Indeed, my children declared that they prefer the American version, probably because they contain a bit more sugar.

Custard powder is something I have been missing because, quite frankly, I suck at making custard from scratch.  Sweet scrambled eggs.  Custard powder saves me the aggravation of making it myself.  I do believe that a trifle is on the cards.

Jammy Dodgers are biscuits (as in cookies, not savoury scones) whereby a layer of super sticky jam is sandwiched between two layers of biscuit, the upper of which has a hole in it.  They are not remotely a special biscuit in Britain but it was a little taste of nostalgia.  The kids devoured them.

British chocolate is very different from American chocolate.  I cannot say that it is any worse or any better but my tastebuds have been bred to prefer the creamy smoothness of British chocolate.  I confess I do not especially like American chocolate as a result.  To prove this is not merely some sort of food patriotism, I will state that Belgian chocolate is by far and away my favourite.  We have all been missing British chocolate so those poor Bounty and Crunchie bars had a very limited lifespan.

Probably the item we were most excited to see, however, was the Irn Bru.  Whisky is the official national drink of Scotland but Irn Bru nips at its heels.  It is a bright orange soft drink promoted as being “made in Scotland from girders”.  It is vaguely fruity but tastes like nothing natural.  It is, however, entirely delicious and very addictive.  Nobody who has tasted it has ever disliked Irn Bru  – well nobody I know at least.  Although we never consumed soft drinks on a regular basis, my kids were dismayed to learn that Irn Bru was not at available in America.  They would look for it on restaurant menus and then remember that Irn Bru would never be an option.  Of all the treats Mr Pict brought back with him from his foraging expedition, the Irn Bru was the one they had missed the most and which they were most glad to see.  It is, however, almost as expensive as liquid amber so they had to do with sharing a small bottle between two and deal with the fact it would be a very occasional treat.  Indeed, we saved the Irn Bru for Burns’ Night – we think Robbie would have approved.

Now if only we could find a source of Bradan Rost salmon on these shores.