The unexpected, interesting things you learn by hosting an international exchange student

You can learn some unexpected and interesting things when hosting an international exchange student, like the story of potatoes and the United States.

Potato fruit. Photo by Jan Brinn, MSU Extension
Potato fruit. Photo by Jan Brinn, MSU Extension

Hosting an international youth has many rewards for our family. One of these rewards is the unexpected things you may learn. As I was giving our student from Ukraine a tour of our box garden, I pointed out the strange things growing from my potatoes that were challenging to identify. Showing photos of this cherry tomato-looking green fruit to friends provided many opinions of what they were, from tomatillo to actual cherry tomatoes—not the Oneida potatoes I had purchased and planted.

One day, while showing my garden to some international guests, our student instantly said she knew what they were and shared the story her grandmother had told about these potato fruit. First, she said I did have potatoes actually growing and proved so by digging in the dirt and showing me the golden treasures below. Second, she said she hoped I did not eat any of the small, cherry tomato-looking fruit, as she knew they were poisonous.

I then enjoyed the story about how America had sent potatoes to Russian Empire (Ukraine was not a country yet) for growing a long time ago. When the cherry tomato-looking fruit grew, the royalty became angered and said how terrible America was for giving something that could not be eaten and ordered all the fields to be burned. A servant noticed something in the burned field as they were digging through the dirt that looked good. They ate it, liked it and discovered this was what was supposed to be eaten and not the tiny fruit growing on top of the soil. America was then liked again and Russian Empire appreciated the gift of potatoes provided.

I loved this folklore story told by our international daughter, and to see if it was true I did a little research myself. I could not find the story told by her grandmother, but I did find a Michigan State University Extension article, “What fruit is growing on my potato plants?” that confirmed I did indeed have fruit growing on my plants and I should not have tasted them. Luckily, it was just a tiny taste and I did not get sick eating the sour-tasting, poisonous fruit, and my husband did not add it to salsa. I also discovered this does not happen very often, hence why it was such a mystery of what I had growing in my box garden.

Further discovery from my research and discussions with our international daughter (students do become a part of your family) is that the potato is the most widely used vegetable in Ukrainian cooking. Our student’s grandmother’s story also confirmed the potato reached Ukraine from America through Europe in the 17th century. It is a necessary ingredient in all soups, particularly borsch and cabbage soup, which incidentally, the borsch prepared by our international daughter using her grandmother’s recipe with the golden potatoes was delicious.

If you have the pleasure of hosting an international youth, enjoy the interesting things you may learn. Furthermore, if you do find the fruit on your potatoes, marvel at them, as this is not going to be a yearly event. Your potatoes below the soil will be just fine and taste delicious. You can just blame it on the weather and look forward to more interesting things to learn from other countries folklore.

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program help to prepare youth as positive and engaged leaders and global citizens by providing educational experiences and resources for youth interested in developing knowledge and skills in these areas.

To learn about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth leadership, citizenship and service and global and cultural education programs, read our 2016 Impact Report: “Developing Civically Engaged Leaders.” Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan State University Extension and Michigan 4-H have positively impacted individuals and communities in 2016, can be downloaded from the MSU Extension website.

Other global educational opportunities can be found on MSU Extension’s Global and Cultural Education website. For more information about 4-H learning opportunities and other 4-H programs, contact your local MSU Extension office. Visit the Michigan 4-H International Exchange Programs page for more information on hosting a student or traveling.

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