Although Auburn is home to a multitude of tasty hubs where locals can choose from a variety of dining options, this was not always the case. The Loveliest Village on the Plains once lacked cuisine that catered to assorted appetites.
In an effort to diversify food selections, a club known to its eight members as, “The International Dinner Club” was born. Founded in 2009, the club emerged in response to the lack of culturally rich dining options and grew into a way for its members to gather and share meals with dishes from all around the globe.
Sadel Güven, a retired research specialist in animal and dairy sciences at Auburn University and local resident for over two decades, described the struggle to find good food after moving to Auburn years ago.
“There was only one movie theater, and there were no restaurants, at least ones that didn’t only serve hamburgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken,” she said.
Originally from Izmir, Turkey, Güven moved to Auburn with her husband and two children in 1981 and has been in the area ever since. She and her husband Oktay, former professor of civil engineering, both worked at the University for many years.
During her time at the University, Güven retained a passion for global travel and indulged in trips to her native Turkey. However, as a result of busy work schedules, visits to home before her retirement were infrequent.
When the time finally came to hang up her lab coat, Güven immediately began to plan trips.
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“My first trip was the Galapagos Islands,” she said. “My scientific background made me curious about [Charles] Darwin. It was wonderful, and afterward, I said, ‘That’s what I like to do with my time: travel.’”
After travelling to the Galapagos, Güven visited a multitude of places including Peru, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Sicily, Greece and Cyprus, just to name a few.
Her trip to Peru catalyzed the inception of the International Dinner Club.
“About 11 years ago in 2009 was when I went to Peru,” Güven said. “This was also the year I had been going to basketball games with some friends who also shared a passion for travel and exploring other cultures. An Indian restaurant opened in Auburn, which was a huge difference from the other restaurants around. It was the first kind of international option in Auburn.”
The group decided to visit the new restaurant and were so inspired by the rich food infused with such culture that they decided to attempt to create such a dining experience themselves, and the International Dinner Club was born.
The eight members of the club alternate who hosts the meeting. The host gets to choose the country that all the food will be from and supplies the main dish, which typically contains a hearty meat of some kind and a grain. Everyone else brings side dishes that cater to the chosen country’s traditional food groups.
“What happens is the host does not control who cooks what, but every time, everything goes together and it works out perfectly,” Güven said.
For their first meeting, Güven drew immediate inspiration from her recent trip to Peru.
“I said, ‘Why don’t I start,’” she said. “I had just come back from Peru and experienced the amazing cuisine. The meats are great, and it is a culture with rich food at its core.”
Following the club’s initial meeting, there have been many more, all focusing on different countries. Although meetings are centered around variety in cuisine, Güven recalled times when everyone requested Turkish food despite having done it before.
“We have fun,” Güven said. “It started with Peru, but we have done Ireland, France, Spain Portugal, Italy, Greece. And of course, we do Turkish; everybody loves Turkish.”
The members of the group all share a passion for travel, so there is never an absence of ideas for what to do for the next dinner.
“It’s a good cultural group,” Güven said. “Three of them still teach at Auburn and have to balance their professional careers with their love of travel. Alice introduced us to Chilean food and another friend to Ethiopian.”
Güven explained that some of the dishes can be daunting at first, but after consulting Google, things become more approachable and always end up being very delicious.
“It’s a fun challenge, and we enjoy learning about it,” she said. “And you know when you’re trying to learn, just Googling and researching recipes helps.”
One of Güven’s personal favorite dishes was inspired by the country of Peru. She has also been unofficially designated as the group’s “dessert person.”
“I made a Swiss chocolate torte — a really thin cake,” Güven recalled. “I also made a ten-layer Russian cake. The frosting had honey, and it was more like a brownie texture and very chocolatey. It took several hours to prepare the food for the 10-layer Russian cake, and I had to bake each layer separately.”
The most recent meeting was centered around the country of Switzerland.
“With COVID we couldn’t meet as much; we didn’t want to be crammed in the house,” Güven said. “My friend Alice has a pool area where we could spread out when the weather was good. We did Switzerland. She has some heritage from Switzerland, and her other heritage was Russia, which we did a while back.”
To adhere to COVID regulations, the group postponed meetings until the end of quarantine and has only met outdoors for their dinners. The Switzerland-themed dinner was conducted by Smith’s pool area where members could socially distance while still enjoying culturally rich food.
In order to further the authentic dining experience, Smith presented the members with raclette — a two-tiered appliance with a heated surface to cook their food — and served them a traditional Swiss appetizer.
“The hostess that time was Alice, and she had cheese fondue with cooked vegetables, bread, shrimp and even baby pickles,” Güven said. “And, since most of us prefer veggie dishes, Switzerland was an excellent choice. On the bottom part of the raclette, you put cheese to melt, and on top is where you cook your food.”
Another member made a Swiss pie that contained thin slices of potatoes, onions, apples and cheese.
“This is where we have fun, and it gives us a good reason to get together,” Güven said.
The group tries to meet at least once every two months and hopes to hold more dinners after the pandemic. Güven has plans to begin traveling as soon as possible and will use these travels to expand the International Dinner Club’s exploration of different foods from around the world.
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