Event Spotlight: Heritage Potluck

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Potlucks are a way to bring people together socially, but they can also serve as a learning tool for language and culture. In foreign language classes, potlucks can promote understanding and appreciation between cultures, allowing students to learn about them by exploring recipes and customs from target cultures.

The UCLA Russian Flagship program has been holding Russian potlucks for several years. By sharing family recipes that have been passed down through generations, students learn not only the language but also the culture and heritage of Russia, as well as some culinary practices of former Soviet republics that are now independent countries.

The student-led potluck began several years before the pandemic when Anna Kudyma, senior lecturer at the Department of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Languages and Cultures and UCLA Russian Flagship Academic Coordinator, wanted to give students the experience of speaking Russian outside of the classroom. “Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were huge potlucks in our program, usually consisting of 5-7 courses” – said Anna. At that time the focus was on providing a detailed overview of Russian cuisine, including dishes from other nationalities.

In recent years the focus has shifted to using Russian to learn about classmates and their families, and the cuisines of various cultures and segments "my family recipe" or "grandmother's recipe" were added. The potlucks now aim to celebrate diversity and promote cultural exchange and feature traditional Russian dishes and those from other countries, including Uzbekistan, Armenia, Finland, France, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan among others. "It’s very interesting because students also gave mini-presentations," Anna said. "I loved the mix of different flavors and spices. It was like traveling the world with your taste buds."

Students of Russian Tyler Armstrong and Catherine Pasternack

The presentations included photos of dishes and the countries they came from. Many potluck dishes were cooked together with parents, and one student’s grandmother wrote down recipes by hand. By combining elements of community cooking and extracurricular activities, students have become more engaged in their learning experience and formed a sense of connection with each other.

Students bring dishes from recipes that have been passed down for generations and that provide students with an authentic taste of cultures and regional cuisines as well as participating in a larger global community. Finally, the potlucks allow students to speak Russian about food and culture.

In addition to providing an educational experience, these potlucks also foster camaraderie among students. Students who may not have known each other prior to enrolling in Flagship come together over food and conversation, creating bonds that last beyond their time at university. Furthermore, by gathering around traditional dishes made by international students, all participants are reminded that we are part of a global society united by our shared experiences and cultures.

Potlucks combine food, connection, and cultural exchange during an extracurricular activity. Whether you’re cooking traditional Russian cuisine or something completely new, food is something that we all bond over – so why not use it as a teaching tool? By doing so, we can celebrate our heritage while exploring different cultures at the same time!