Cooking Abroad

I am no renowned cook, but I’ve always thought, if you can read a recipe, then what’s the big deal? You follow the instructions, it tends to turn out.

In France, that was challenging. Problem 1: everything was in French. Problem 2: all of the measurements were different. Problem 3: the grocery stores didn’t always have everything or anything I needed (see my post on making cookies to see just how challenging that can be).

So now that I’m here in Ireland problem 1 is gone, which helps a lot, and I have a few American measuring cups, etc. here so problem 2 is also not really a problem. But pesky problem 3: ingredients.

While my tales of cooking woes aren’t nearly as epic as in France, the results were far less edible.

Shortly after arriving, I bought a crockpot. I’ll admit, I don’t  love to cook and I figured I would have little time to cook with grad school anyway. However, I enjoy variety in my meals and wanted to have little hassle with delicious results. A crockpot seemed like the answer and mostly it has been. Except when pesky cultural and linguistic differences get in the way.

First casualty: crock pot chicken marsala. I found a Betty Crocker recipe for chicken marsala in the crock pot. (How can you go wrong with Betty Crocker, right?) Everything looked good and I was able to get all of the ingredients except cornstarch. Fine, I said. You can substitute flour for that. I’m only missing one ingredient…seems like a win. I found a couple of websites that gave amounts for substituting cornstarch for flour. And I did the conversion. This seems like a lot of flour for a little bit of cornstarch, I thought. But, then again, what do I know about cooking or chemistry? Just follow the recipe.

So I did.

Even as I was pouring the first of two cups of flour into the meager amount of liquid to thicken the marsala sauce, I questioned the conversion. I double-checked it, came out with the same number and said, well, I’ve never made chicken marsala before, maybe this is just how it is supposed to be?

As I poured the gelatinous paste onto my chicken, I could only laugh bitterly at how this looked nothing like Betty’s perfect meal and that this is what I planned to eat for at least the next three meals.

Second casualty: tacos. How in the world can you screw up tacos, you ask? This was an error of translation. Meat, particularly that which comes from a pig, has different terms for everything than what we have in the United States. Crispy bacon doesn’t exist, but the term bacon is used to describe something that looks more like ham, etc. So I went to the pork section of the meat aisle. Nothing said “pork”. I remember that the previous time I’d made this recipe, what turned out to be “pork” as I know it wasn’t labeled that way. So I looked for what most closely resembled pork. Looking back, I have no idea what the label said, but I remember thinking, this is probably close enough.

It wasn’t.

So I seasoned the meat with a blend I found online for a carnitas, stuck it in the crockpot and left it to cook all day. Eight hours later when I went to check on it, I sliced it down the middle and saw that it was still pink. Like REALLY pink. How could this be, I thought, it has been cooking all day? Then it dawned on me. This wasn’t the pork loin or whatever I thought it was. It was ham. I had just seasoned ham as taco meat. I was going to have shredded ham tacos for at least the next three days.

And you know what? I was really looking forward to this meal. Why? It was my first meal after I finally finished the gelatinous paste crockpot chicken marsala.

I cleansed my palate eating out in Dublin for a few days after that.

When your name is not your name

Growing up, my dad’s family was vocally proud about their Irish heritage. Not only was his hometown called “Irish Settlement”, but their home church was St. Patrick’s. I took Irish dance classes when they were offered in my town. We would always mark St. Patrick’s Day by wearing green and obnoxious shamrock paraphernalia, going to the local parade, having a visit from leprechauns who would leave pots of gold coins around our house and attending parties when I was older.


Totes adorbs, right?

My Irish ancestors moved to the United States almost 200 years ago now, but being Irish was certainly part of my identity as an American.

That was a big part of why I wanted to study here — my Irish heritage. However, when people ask me why I wanted to study here, I sheepishly reveal that part of my interest. It isn’t so much that I’m embarrassed, it is simply that I don’t know how to convey my family’s pride in our heritage without sounding like a creepy cultural stalker.

Then there’s my name. It’s Irish, but apparently we pronounce it differently in the United States. That’s been surprisingly weird for me here. For example,  I’ll give my name to sign in at an event and I’ll say “Kristina McLaughlin (Mic-lawf-lynn)” to which they will often repeat my name, but pronounce it as “Mac-lock-lynn”. Before I left, one of my cousins told me a story about my late aunt traveling through Ireland. She would say her name was “McLaughlin (Mic-lawf-lynn)” and would get a similar response “McLaughlin (Mic-lock-lynn)”. After awhile it drove her a little crazy to the point where she turned to my cousin and said, “Why can’t they just say it right!?”

I remember hearing that story and thinking, but they are saying in right and we are the ones saying it wrong. And at the time I couldn’t quite understand why it would bother her.

Now I get it.

Mind you, it doesn’t bother me (probably in the same way I imagine it didn’t really bother her), but it has fueled a bit of an identity crisis…or maybe just a slight stutter when I say my name. Because when I give my name, how should I pronounce it? The way it is pronounced in America? They way I have grown up pronouncing it? Do I insist that they pronounce it my way? Or do I just pronounce it the way it is supposed to be pronounced? A way that feels very foreign to my tongue? A name that doesn’t feel like it belongs to me?

This became really apparent to me on a recent flight back to the United States. They were looking for a passenger with the name “McLaughlin (Mac-lock-lynn)” and it took awhile before I realized, oh that might be me. I raised my hand and said, “I guess I’m a McLaughlin”. (Which got a few looks – like you guess you know your own name??) As it turned out they weren’t looking for me, but that moment stuck…”I guess I’m a McLaughlin”?


We loved those glasses.

Many people in the United States think of themselves as (something)-Americans. And while I would never have introduced myself as an Irish-American because my family had been in the U.S. for so long (and to be fair, I have ancestors from the majority of countries in Western Europe), it was a part of my identity. However, it was in one of those instances where I was internally frustrated with someone was telling me how to pronounce my own name that I truly lost my “(something)-Americaness”.  In that moment I realized just how American I was. While the pride and interest in my heritage didn’t melt away, the 200 years, the five generations suddenly felt like a much greater distance than it ever had before. For all the pride and representations of my Irish heritage in my life, it was really a manifestation of being American. I never felt so American in my entire life and it felt a bit strange.

I haven’t settled on an answer. I’ve noticed that I pause before giving my last name now. It probably looks as though I’ve forgotten it, but I’m really just trying to decide: do I give my name as I’ve said it all my life or not?

Highlights from my first semester

Over my holiday break, I had the pleasure of visiting two of my home Rotary clubs. With them, I shared these highlights of my experience in my first semester.

  • Going on the set of The Vikings. One of my professors last semester works for the series, The Vikings, a show on The History Channel, as the historical advisor. I mentioned that this was one of my career goals, so he let me tag along. It was SO interesting. Anyone who knows me, knows I am a sucker for a good historical/period drama. For as many as I have watched (she admitted sheepishly), I hadn’t previously conceptualized all that goes into making a good historical drama. Specifically what surprised me was the time, vision and attention to detail it takes to film a scene that captures exactly what you want to show. Between takes, my professor was fantastic about introducing me to everyone he could from the directors to special effects to costume designers to actors (everyone was super nice). I’m hoping if it works out, I’ll be able to go back this semester to learn and observe more.
  • My class in Belfast. Since my dissertation is going to discuss The Troubles, I decided to audit a class taught by Trinity in Belfast to ground myself in the history and continued discussions. While I largely underestimated the time commitment of going there each Tuesday and tempted fate by committing to getting on a 6:30 AM bus each week, it was absolutely worth it. The class was taught by two different professors who were able (and willing) to share different viewpoints on the conflict. My favorite were the field trips. We spent two classes walking around the neighborhoods of Belfast to look at the peace walls and the murals. This was fascinating.









  • My classmates. Can I say enough good things about them?? Somehow, I managed to find my way into a course with sharp students who are also supportive and kind. I don’t think you could ask for a better combination. With a fairly diverse (four students from the Republic of Ireland, one student from Northern Ireland, three students from the U.K., one student from China, one student from Italy, two students from Canada, and three from different parts of the U.S.) and quite well-traveled group, the points and examples make for excellent conversation as we contemplate the larger questions of public history. It has been especially interesting to learn more about China – a county I know too little about – and how culture and governmental structures play into what is and isn’t remembered.


  • The Rotary Ireland Conference. Not long after I arrived, the national conference was held in Kildare (not too far from Dublin). There were some amazing speakers including Enda Young who spoke about conflict resolution/mediation and Jim Sheridan, an Irish film director, who spoke on many things, but was mostly just very entertaining. While we met many Rotarians from all over Ireland, it was also the first opportunity we had to meet most of the other scholars studying in Ireland this year. (Yet another group I can’t say enough wonderful things about!) There are nine in total split evenly between Dublin, (London)Derry and Belfast. We had a great time at the conference and the ball where the Tánaiste/Minister for Justice and Equality (roughly the equivalent of our Vice President in the U.S.) came to our table and personally introduced herself to all of us speaking briefly about our research and experiences so far.


The second semester is well underway and already off to a good start! More on that another time.