A shrimp appetizer was one of the dishes featured at Jamaican night.
"What happens in Jamaica stays in Jamaica," Loren Hollers said as he opened his door.
Dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, shades hid Loren's eyes, a curtain of dreadlocks fell about his shoulders held in place by the Rastafarian cap they were sewn to. Bob Marley crooned from an iPod in the dining room. Tie-dye hung from antlers and fishing paraphernalia its scarlet, fuchsia and tangerine, clashing with the black bear pelts in the dining room. Outside, the March wind that nibbled cheeks and noses carried with it the spicy scents of ginger, curry and allspice. Scotch bonnet peppers caressed nostrils as pineapple juice, rum and coconut milk doused taste buds.
Loren Hollers shows off a pot of Jamaican style goat to Mike Bergholtz at the start of a Jamaican-themed dinner party at Hollers' home last month. Five families have been taking turns hosting the dinner parties through the winter months.
Greg and Cathy Zorbas, Gregory and Olga Weissenberg, Mike and Chris Bergholtz and Steven and Laura Ramsay sipped pina coladas, Jamaican beer and compared rum brands in the kitchen with Loren and Dianna Hollers. Despite the 40-degree weather, a propane cooker smoked outside where Loren's curried goat simmered. Every now and then a youngster, clothed in pirate garb or fake dreadlocks, ran to snag an appetizer before retreating to den where the Jamaican bobsled team proved their metal in the movie "Cool Runnings."
Loren Hollers, Steven Ramsay and Gregory Weissenberg lift a Jamaican rum toast at the beginning of the dinner.
"The most important thing is about coming together with food and friends," Laura said. "It's the same with every culture you look at."
Each country has it's own unique mix of favored ingredients and the group goes to great lengths to utilize those flavors.
Jerk seasonings, curry and the ever-present allspice took center stage at the Hollers on March 29. After visiting Egypt in February, the group decided to go tropical as it headed to the Caribbean and Jamaica. In a few weeks, they will travel to France and finish out the winter in Peru, where Greg will roast a llama over an open fire.
"We could actually buy a llama from Diamond M. Ranch," he said. "It's going to have an Incan theme."
The elaborate potluck dinner starts to take form in the Hollers' kitchen.
What began as an excuse to see old friends away from work and the hockey rink turned into a winter-long culinary travelogue around the globe without leaving the Kenai Peninsula. One night a month, from Christmas to Memorial Day, the Hollers, Zorbases, Weissenbergs, the Bergholtzs and the Ramsays comb supermarkets, specialty stores and the Internet for exotic ingredients like saffron and Egyptian wine to create a meal that rivals any restaurant.
"The host of the dinner makes two entrees and appetizers and then two couples do side dishes, one couple does the dessert and one couple does a salad," Greg said. "Each family brings some type of beverage, both spirit and non-spirit for the kids. We've tried to make it as strict as possible. That spirit or drink idea has to come from the theme."
The elaborate potluck dinner starts to take form in the Hollers' kitchen.
Food Network shows like the Iron Chef and Dinner Impossible inspired Greg, who ran a catering business with his wife and the Weissenbergs before teaching history at Kenai Central High School, to come up with a way to rival them. It began three years ago with a way to introduce the Ramsays, who come from the United Kingdom, to Alaska, and has included places like Morocco, India, Mexico and Egypt.
"Laura thought she could buy moose at Safeway," Greg said. "That's why it was Alaska."
"I thought (moose) tasted nice, gamey," Laura said. "You don't know you're eating it."
At the beginning of the season, the group holds an informal potluck and writes down the themes they'd like to try. They're placed in a hat and one of their kids makes sure the same one isn't written down twice and each couple picks. That way, Loren said, even if someone puts in a theme they're comfortable with, they may not get to host it.
"I think that I'm a great Mexican cook," he said. "I don't necessarily get to do that. Everybody gets out of their comfort zone."
One thing unique about Jamaican cooking is its mingled use of both sweet and savory spices. The group encountered such a combination before in Morocco and Egypt, which used allspice in its dishes as well. But Greg, who grew up in the Greek culture on his dad's side and inherited a love of cooking from his mother, said this combination was unusual for him.
"I had a side dish, which was an Egyptian-style stuffed grape leaf with rice, allspice and garlic," he said. "There were savory spices along with sweet spices. (With) Greek cuisine, the sweet spices you just use with the sweet spices, you don't mix."
The kids often find their own comfort zones challenged when their parents confront them with bizarre dishes like haggis. They're further astonished to discover they like it. Elisha Hollers, Loren and Dianna's daughter, a freshman at Skyview High School, said she was given extra credit on a test when her math teacher asked the class what the weirdest thing they ate was.
"My math teacher said, 'You actually ate that?'" Elisha said.
Elisha said she and her family moved to Alaska approximately four years ago from Greeley, Colorado. Nathan Zorbas, Greg and Cathy's 11-year-old son, was her first friend in Alaska, she said.
"It was a totally new experience when I moved here at 10," she said. "Now I'm older I get to help cook, so I know what I'm eating. I helped Dad peel the shrimp."
Loren's curried goat had simmered for approximately four hours and Greg's oxtail soup was warmed through when the grown ups called their kids into the kitchen to introduce their dishes. Along with Loren's curried goat and Dianna's jerk chicken, the Hollers provided two shrimp appetizers and Caribbean sausage-cheese triangles sausage, cream cheese, garlic and a scotch bonnet pepper wrapped in phylo dough.
The Ramsays brought two salads: a bean-salad served in a base of lime juice and cabbage, red and green bell peppers and cucumbers covered with thousand island dressing.
When it came time to introduce Greg's oxtail soup, he said he wasn't sure the kids would like oxtails, but added that many cultures have recipes that involve oxtails, usually in soups and stews.
Various cultures have a use for allspice as well, but none use it as much as Jamaicans do. The allspice that was featured in the appetizers, the jerk chicken, curried goat, the rice and peas the Weissenbergs brought as a side dish and Greg's oxtail soup was also found in Mike Bergholtz's desserts. Chris Bergholtz, who looked up information on mealtime customs in Jamaica on the Internet at foodbycountry.com, said allspice is Jamaica's primary export and comes from the pimento plant, which shouldn't be confused with the red pepper stuff found in olives.
"(In Jamaica) table manners are considered less important than enjoying the food," she said, voicing a sentiment her kids could appreciate.
"(I learned) that we don't have to use table manners," said Alex Bergholtz, Mike and Chris's daughter. "I didn't eat at a table."
When Loren brought forth his curried goat in a cast-iron pot, he said he simmered it for approximately four hours because he wanted it to be tender. He washed it in a solution of vinegar and cold water and marinated it in curry, jerk seasonings, pepper, allspice, scallions, onions and garlic.
"We called IGA and they told us they could get us some goat," Loren said. He boned it like a deer on Kodiak Island, but couldn't use the entire goat for his curried goat. "It came in a box and looked like someone took a chain saw and cut the goat into pieces."
Loren only tried goat once, he said, when he rodeoed in college, but that goat was older. Dianna picked the goat up from IGA a week before the dinner and Loren said he started marinating it on March 25.
"I would think it's lamb if I didn't know," he said. "I boned it all and I marinated it for 48 hours."
Gregory Weissenberg and his wife Olga, who are originally from Russia, helped Greg run his catering business. Since the Weissenbergs started getting together with the Hollers, the Bergholtz, the Zorbases and the Ramsays, Gregory said it's hard to find a restaurant that compares with the food they're able to come up with. Every time he and Olga go to a restaurant the food must pass what Gregory calls the Zorbas test.
"After all these years (we ask) did it pass this test or not," Gregory said, adding that only one restaurant came close to passing this test. Gregory teaches history at Skyview High School and said both he and Greg are able to use their experiences in the classroom. "This is so interesting. This is so good. Everyone puts their heart and soul into it."
In a couple weeks the group will embark on a French cooking spree. Dishes would include ingredients like mussels and would be served on big plates. Everyone will also trade in their shades and dreadlocks for formal dinner attire. At some point, Greg said the group would like to do period-authentic dinners in addition to experimenting with different nationalities. He said the host of the show Dinner Impossible experimented with the Renaissance, doing all of his cooking in an outdoor oven. But, he said, the group still has several more places to visit.
"We still have many different places in the world that we haven't gone to yet," he said. "We can do this for years and years."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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