Breaking barriers around the table with eggplant parm.
Norma McGee, known by many simply as Grandma Norma, was born in Alabama almost a century ago. Little did she know that at age 98, she’d still be making her eggplant Parmesan, a recipe that has gone global.
After retiring as the business manager for the Los Rios Community College in Sacramento in 1989, McGee concentrated on her passion for cooking. Her husband, Stewart, encouraged her effort, too.
“My love for cooking and hosting was developed over the years entertaining family and friends,” she recalls. “My husband was a very social person and liked to have friends over. On Sundays, he would usually ask me if there was enough food to invite friends over, so I would always make extra.”
When she moved to Reno with her daughter and son-in-law, Nancy and Steve Casper, Norma’s cooking for and hosting others went international, sort of. In 2002, she and her family began cooking for foreign visitors for a few years through programs sponsored by the Northern Nevada International Center and funded by the United States Department of State.
“I loved to cook, host parties, and meet new people,” McGee says, “so it was a natural that I was asked to help out. And, as they say, the rest is history.”
As guests from around the world who are smart, well-educated, and accomplished come to the table, these dinner experiences give the guests a “typical” American family experience. It also provides an opportunity to talk, break down barriers, and look past cultural assumptions.
“Sharing a meal is an ideal way to get to know someone,” McGee says. “We embrace the knowledge that people from all over the world are more alike than different. Shared hopes and dreams overcome differences in nationality, politics, language, culture, and sometimes religion. It’s heartening to see national stereotypes, from both sides, fall away over a meal and a few hours.”
Stacy Kinion, associate director of international exchanges at Northern Nevada International Center, agrees.
“It’s hard to articulate just how far a family’s influence may extend, but I can say with certainty that Steve, Nancy, and Grandma Norma have offered companionship and friendship simply by breaking bread over the years,” Kinion says. “There is so much to be gained when we open our doors and our hearts here and across the globe. They have no doubt been responsible for breaking many preconceived notions and extending goodwill that creates lifelong friends.”
Guests always are amazed to learn that most of the meals have been prepared by Grandma Norma herself. Her go-to entrée that appeals to the masses, eggplant Parmesan, is a dish she’s prepared ever since a good friend gave her the recipe in 1977. It’s commonly served and appreciated by all, even Steve, who wouldn’t touch eggplant before he tried her version. The secret? Make it the day of the event and substitute tomato sauce with marinara that’s been mixed with chopped garlic and simmered for an hour.
“Meat lover or vegetarian, the dish appeals to them all!” McGee adds. “Many visitors have asked for this recipe, so it’s enjoying international acclaim even after it’s appeared on our dining table.”
And word has certainly spread far and wide. To date, McGee has hosted more than 1,000 international visitors.
“Our lives have been immeasurably changed and enhanced by participating in these visitor programs and opening our home to people from all over the world,” she adds. “We recommend the experience highly to anyone who wants to travel the world without leaving their home!”
A lover of eggplant parm and dinner parties, freelance writer Heidi Bethel aspires to host guests with as much verve for it as the amazing Grandma Norma has.