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The Culinary Event of the Year

Tabor students cooking
Tabor students cooking
Tabor student cooking
The Culinary Event of the Year

For a long time, the dinner was held in February but planning began much earlier. Although it was only a single night—at first anyway—many weeks went into pulling it off. Preparation was essential. Asian Dinner, a precursor to today’s International Dinners, was the culinary highlight of the school year. Student leaders were selected in November, and they met regularly with Steve Downes and Merry Conway, the director and former associate director of Tabor’s International Center, to ensure their peers were ready.

“When students went home for winter vacation, we gave them homework,” says Conway, who retired in 2015 after 34 years of service. “Their assignment was to come back with a recipe. For a lot of the international kids—just like the American kids—most of them had never cooked a meal before, never mind cooked for an entire student body.”  

It was a daunting task, but the untested chefs were always excited when they returned from break. Planning ramped up immediately. “We would look at the recipes and start crafting the menus, and they really got into it,” Conway says. “They wanted to make their dishes as authentic as possible. It became a real sense of pride.”

To achieve that authenticity, there were trips to the H Mart in Burlington, MA, a grocery store that specializes in Asian ingredients. The dinner was typically held on a Thursday, with the bulk of the cooking done on Wednesday. While student chefs led the way, they received professional guidance every now and then. 

“We actually had a parent who was a chef in Japan, and she flew in three years in a row to help with the preparation,” Conway says. “She spent time in the Tabor kitchen and became good friends with the chefs.”

Tabor’s dining team, Conway stresses, deserves immense credit for the event’s lasting success. “I couldn’t compliment enough the way [director of food services] Mike Sirianni and the kitchen staff supported the entire effort.” Because the Chinese contingent was the largest, they cooked in the dining hall under the supervision of Chef Andrew Oliveira. The other country groups fanned out across campus—and sometimes off campus—and prepared their meals in satellite kitchens set up in faculty homes.  

When the big night arrived, the Johnson Dining Room resembled a culinary world’s fair. Country tables were stationed around the room, each thematically decorated and staffed by proud student chefs. In the early years, there were tables for China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand. Revisiting the menus from those dinners on an empty stomach is ill-advised as they contain many mouth-watering courses: steamed dumplings, fried dumplings, sweet and sour spareribs, yakisoba (fried noodles), sushi, satay chicken, shrimp pancakes, coconut juice, and green tea ice cream—just as a sampling. 

The dinner’s popularity skyrocketed in the early 2000s as more tables were added to represent Tabor’s growing international population, including tables for India, Vietnam, and the Middle East. To call it the most highly anticipated meal of the year would not be hyperbole. In the weeks leading up to the feast, there was always an energetic student-led media blitz: articles ran in The Log, videos played at all-school meetings, and posters were pinned across campus. 

“On the night of the dinner, kids would start lining up at a quarter after four and we didn’t open until five,” Conway says. “It brought the whole community together. When you have standing room only in a dining room and people are waiting to get in, that’s the mark of a good restaurant.”

The roots of the dinner go back several decades. By the 1970s, Tabor’s international population had become much larger and more diverse than at any previous point in the school’s history. Tinker Saltonstall, who initially served as the director of student activities, felt that the school could do more to support its foreign students. Head of School Peter Webster agreed, and he asked Saltonstall to lead these efforts.

The International Club, which eventually evolved into the Center for International Students, launched in 1979 and performed several functions. It helped students navigate logistical hurdles like renewing their visas and passports, but it also created opportunities for them to celebrate and share their cultures. Among other events, the club sponsored speakers and dinners, including a Thai night that Mrs. Saltonstall would host at her house and themed dinners in the dining hall such as “A Taste of Asia” and “A Taste of Europe.” 

The first official Asian Dinner was held in 1995. In an effort to engage the broader community, the International Club extended invitations to many local Marion residents. The dinner was an unprecedented success that left students hankering for the next one. 

By the time Saltonstall passed the reins to Conway and Downes after retiring in 2002, the dinner was an established tradition. Over the following years, it became a marquee event. “It really just took off,” Conway says. “It was an organic thing that just happened.” There was almost always 100% participation from international students, and domestic students started asking how they could get involved.

“The American kids really wanted to be part of somebody’s table,” Conway says, “so we had them apply. It became an integrated activity. And because the kids did work so hard at it, we introduced t-shirts. If you were a cook, you got a t-shirt. That was part of the competition to get involved.”

Over the years, the event grew and evolved along with Tabor’s broader international program.

The creation of International Week in 2013 led to multiple International Dinners, which Asian Dinner officially merged with in 2019. Typically held in the spring, International Week features a range of multicultural activities. In recent years, there have been badminton tournaments and cricket lessons on the Hoyt lawn accompanied by Thai iced tea and Korean popsicles. The chapel program has featured musical performances along with moving talks from international students.

Food, one of humanity’s most universal yet unique experiences, remains at the center of International Week. Although cooking operations are now based entirely in the dining hall—rather than faculty kitchens—students continue to prepare the menus. This year, however, at least one faculty member plans to contribute.

“I make some great Chinese dumplings,” says Head of School Tony Jaccaci. “That’s my specialty.” Jaccaci, who speaks fluent Mandarin and lived in China for five years, is a firm believer in the power of cultural exchange as a means of strengthening a community. 

“Nothing is closer to a feeling of home than the smells, tastes, sights and warmth of the foods we have grown up with,” he says. “It’s often called ‘comfort food’ because when we eat this type of food, it transports us to a place within our memories. International Dinners at Tabor gives the chance for some of our community members to share their ‘homes’ here in Marion even though the actual place may be thousands of miles away.”