Pass the black-eyed peas and pirogi

For many families, a typical Southern meal on New Year’s Day includes black-eyed peas. It’s a tradition that is supposed to bring good luck and prosperity.

We served black-eyed peas and pirogi when we visited my husband’s Russian-Polish family in Connecticut over the New Year’s holiday. Pirogi are half-moon shaped dumplings stuffed with potato, cheese, cabbage or almost anything you can fit inside.

I love them, especially fried in butter and served with sour cream. And to think I’d never eaten pirogi until I met my husband.

Food has a way of bringing together people from different cultures. For the past 25 years or so, our two families have blended a variety of cultures. At one time or another, our families have included folks from Mexico, China, the Philippines, as well as those with Portuguese and American Indian heritages.

We are not that unique. At the rate America is changing, many of you are already part of, or will eventually become part of, a multicultural family.

A 2009 report from The Nielsen Co. about changing consumer demographics indicated ethnic families are expected to grow at a faster rate than the total U.S. population. According to Nielsen, more than half of families with children are expected to be multicultural by 2025. By 2050, that number is anticipated to be greater than 60 percent.

With so much mixing and matching of cultures, there’s bound to be familial friction. After all, good food can only go so far in helping us get along. Don’t worry. Lots of women who are part of blended families have advice.

Annette Khan is Caucasian and her husband, Malik, is Pakistani. They celebrated their 34th anniversary last month.

“I think more of the challenges are the combination of a multicultural and multifaith relationship,” she said. “I’m fortunate in this relationship since I accepted Islam after our marriage. We don’t have that challenge.”

Harriet Cannon, a Seattle family therapist specializing in multicultural relationships, said the most common resistance is the unconscious fear and loss of cultural identity from extended family.

“Many people may think they are open-minded,” Cannon said, “But the reality is, it is scary for older generations — sometimes even siblings — to accept a blended culture where some of the cultural family history will disappear.”

Her advice for blended families is to embrace being a pioneer in a multicultural world.

Anjum Ali is Pakistani, and her husband is Persian. She said couples need to work on building understanding in the early stages of a relationship.

“Serious misunderstandings can start a marriage off very badly and so there must be clarifications right from the beginning of what the expectations are and whether they will be shared or lived up to,” Ali said.

Khan said she strongly encourages pre-marriage counseling with someone who understands the challenges of multicultural and multifaith relationships.

“Be sure to discuss those difficult questions, especially the question of what faith the children should be if one parent doesn’t convert,” Khan said. “I’ve seen several marriages where neither husband or wife are strong in their faith/religion before the marriage, but when they have children it changes.”

The women also advise couples to blend cultures while appreciating the benefits of being different.

“Our children have benefitted in that they have become more knowledgeable about two different cultures simultaneously and of course two similar but different languages, Farsi and Urdu,” Ali said. “In their very early years, they were trilingual.”

Khan does not have children but her mother-in-law lives with the couple.

“I’ve been exposed to so much more of the world than I would have seen in my small Nebraska hometown,” she said. “Pakistani food — I love spicy foods now; exotic clothing — I enjoy wearing the shalwar-kameez and an occasional sari; languages — I’ve learned a few words of both Urdu and Arabic (and before meeting my husband, I doubt I’d ever heard of Urdu).”

I like how these women think. Although I don’t wear a babushka like my husband’s Russian grandmother likely wore, and I’ve only picked up one or two words of Polish and Russian, I have happily adopted some of my husband’s family traditions.

For instance, we celebrate Russian Christmas each year with a special meal and small gifts. And I’m always willing to enjoy a bit of iced vodka and caviar. As I said, good food helps ease the way to better cross-cultural understanding.

“Cheers!” or as they say in Russia, “Budem zdorovy !”

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