Alphabet dinners let my family travel the world


Brian holds “La bandera” a traditional Dominican Republic dish with meat, rice and beans that are served in the shape of the country’s flag. Photo credit: Brian Yancelson

photo provided by Brian Yancelson

At a time when Americans have been forced to stay at home, my family and I have gotten to travel the world through our kitchen. From Australia to India, we have learned about the rich cuisines that exist across the globe, communicated with friends and family from different countries and best of all, we have cooked and eaten delicious food that we had never even heard of before.

A few years ago, a close family friend of ours who is the most creative person I know told us about a tradition she and her family started to have some fun in the kitchen. Every week, she would choose a country’s food to cook for dinner by going in alphabetical order, choosing a country that starts with whatever letter was up that week. The idea was to mix up her family’s dinners with something new every week.

As someone who loves traveling, I loved the idea of picking a country to focus on every week, but for whatever reason, we never took on the challenge. Then in July, in the middle of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic we are suffering through as a country, the Yancelsons were getting increasingly bored. We could not travel safely like we do every summer, sports were still mostly cancelled and days were getting longer and longer. We desperately needed a spark.

To cook up some fun, I convinced my mom that we should start doing the alphabet dinners and surprise the rest of our family. I did some initial research and pitched Australia, which of course starts with the letter “A,” as a good country to start the alphabet with. We looked through some recipes together and decided that we were going to jump right in, cooking food we had never heard of to see how things went. Now, more than two months and nine countries later, my mom and I have taken our alphabet dinners to a whole new level.

For Australia, the menu consisted of meat pies, scalloped potatoes and lamingtons for dessert. We decided to debut our alphabet dinners on Friday night, which is when our entire family of six is together for the Jewish Sabbath. My brothers came over, and my dad got home from work as usual, but my mom and I were in the kitchen stirring up a surprise.

I printed an Australian flag and pinned it on the wall where we eat, and we found a koala bear stuffed animal to decorate the table with. When the food was ready, we called everyone to the table and unveiled the surprise to a reception of smiles and great curiosity. Thankfully, the meat pies were outstanding, and the homemade lamingtons (chocolate-covered cake smothered in shaved coconut) proved to be a big hit. Just like that, a new tradition was born.

Every week has featured something unique, whether it be more extravagant decorations or more complicated food. The country we choose is a surprise for my brothers and dad until we eat, and it is safe to say that the suspense we’ve created is palpable.

For “B,” we threw everyone for a loop, picking the Bahamas over the expected Brazil. Chicken skewers with peas and rice went along with a beach-themed table setting that proved to our family that the previous week was no fluke.

When “C” came up on the schedule, I decided to learn “O Canada” on the piano to play for our country announcement. Canada also gave us plenty of fun facts as we chose what to eat, explaining our choice to make cranberry maple chicken because Canada is the world’s second-leading producer in cranberries.

When the time comes to pick a country, my mom and I research our options and often base our decisions on if we know someone who could give us advice about a given country. For “G,” we picked Germany because one of my brothers lived there for a year and we could talk with his host family about what food he liked. Chicken schnitzel, Kaese Spaetzle and a unique German potato salad turned out to be one of my favorite overall meals thus far. We also added fried apples known as “Apfel kuchen” for dessert while buying gherkins, sauerkraut and pretzels for appetizers.

For “H,” another family friend of ours from Honduras suggested great foods to try, including pupusas and yucca with chicharron. On top of the great advice they have provided, it has been rewarding to reconnect with friends during a time of isolation.

Sometimes finding all the ingredients we need is not as simple as going down to HEB. We have had to find specialized markets like La Michoacana and Ali Baba to get all sorts of unique items, allowing us to explore multiple cultures that all have their corners within San Antonio.

What started as a fun activity has turned into a passion for my mom and me especially. Every week now involves picking a country as me make our way through the alphabet, choosing unique foods and ultimately making everything from scratch before surprising the rest of our family. In between, we have lots of fun picking decorations and talking with locals from some of the countries we have chosen.

Our alphabet dinners have provided our family with tons of fun in a time when fun is not always easy to find. Cooking food from different countries has also taught us so much, but more than anything, it has reminded us what a beautiful world we live in. Every country has a unique culture and cuisine that is worth exploring, and while the coronavirus may be stopping us from going to the countries themselves, we have not let the virus stop us from traveling the world one dinner at a time.

Follow @alphabetdinners_ on Instagram for pictures of all our adventures and to travel along with our family. Maybe you can guess what country will be next!