Military Overseas Connect with Other Cultures Through Food and the USO, Despite COVID-19 Lockdown

By Danielle DeSimone

“Join the Navy – see the world.” The famous slogan from World War II recruitment posters is easily applied to all branches of the military, and still rings true today.

Service members and their families are stationed all around the globe and while living in another country may sound glamorous, it can in fact be challenging.

While stationed overseas, military families are far from home and their network of support systems. They must adjust to an entirely new way of life, all while also dealing with the daily stress of military duties and deployments. However, the upside of these duty stations is that they offer military members an exciting opportunity to see other parts of the world and learn about different cultures.

Unfortunately, lockdowns, quarantines and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic have made exploring these host countries difficult, if not impossible, for most service members and military families. Despite these challenges, the military community has still managed to connect – virtually – with the diverse cultures around them through USO educational food programs.

Learning About Italian Culture Through Pasta

In Naples, Italy, American military families spent the past few months under a tight lockdown due to the country’s strict COVID-19 regulations. This meant that when they normally could have been exploring their host country and making the most of a duty station that is far from home and everything familiar, military families instead had to stay home.

In order to support these families, USO Naples began providing a variety of online, virtual programs. One of the most popular programs has been the “Recipe Corner” Facebook Live videos. USO Naples Senior Area Operations Manager Luisa Mazzella has been guiding military families watching at home through cooking classes of classic Italian dishes. This has included everything from homemade gnocchi, to tiramisu and even how to properly prepare and drink Italian coffee.

The cooking classes have been a great way for military families to not only learn more about Italian cooking but also Italian culture.

Mazzella herself is Italian and the cooking classes are a family affair, with her children and their “nonna” (grandmother) also participating in the videos. The tips and guidance from the elderly grandmother are invaluable and learning alongside Mazzella’s family is a great way for military families to truly connect with the culture and community around them in Italy.

“Hey, you said you wanted to cook with a real Italian,” Mazzella said as she introduced her family on the Facebook video. “So, we have the best there is around.”

Diving into Japanese Culture with Spring Rolls

Service members stationed in Sasebo, Japan, may not have been allowed to recently venture too far into the surrounding town and see the sights, but that doesn’t mean they have to stop learning about Japanese culture and cuisine.

Last week, USO volunteer Keiko Mitchell showed service members and military families watching at home how to make Japanese spring rolls called Harumaki via a Facebook video. However, the video was far more than a cooking class.

Mitchell not only taught viewers the Japanese words for each of the ingredients, she also explained where to find certain specialty ingredients in the grocery store. Navigating a grocery store in a country where you don’t speak or read the language can be challenging, so Mitchell’s video was both helpful and educational for military viewers at home.

Connecting with Coalition Forces in the Middle East

In the Middle East, service members have been dealing with both the challenges of being deployed to the front lines and the stress of a global pandemic – all of which can take its toll. However, they recently got to distract themselves from their daily duties by connecting and learning from a culture beyond their own.

Nicky, a USO volunteer in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), is a member of the Australian coalition forces deployed alongside American troops. He often delivers Australian decorations and souvenirs to the USO center, but most recently he went one step further by hosting a food event at the USO centered around Anzac cookies.

Anzac cookies (or, “biscuits”) were a very simple oat cookie sent to Australian troops on the front lines of the Gallipoli Campaign during World War I. Today, making these same cookies is a way to carry on the tradition and commemorate Anzac Day, a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand for all those who have served and died in war.

Making, eating and learning about Anzac cookies alongside Australian troops deployed to the Middle East was a great way for American service members to not only connect with other nationalities and their fellow military members, but also pay tribute to the longstanding alliance between Australian and American armed forces.

Exploring the countries in which service members are stationed through educational food programs is a fun, morale-boosting activity at otherwise challenging duty stations during a difficult time. However, it is also an opportunity for service members to serve as goodwill ambassadors in other countries by connecting with other cultures despite lockdown restrictions and displaying the U.S. military’s commitment to being a force for good in the world.

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As the COVID-19 outbreak is evolving, the USO has pivoted resources across the entire global enterprise in an approach that helps care for military members and their families.

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