What Mashed Potatoes Taught Me About American Culture

November 29, Day 486*

Okay, so I admit that I canceled Thanksgiving. I was going to throw a big Thanksgiving dinner at my house last Friday, but then with Catherine’s mother passing away, I decided to cancel it and focus on attending the funeral instead.

I still feel like I should cook for Thanksgiving. It’s a tradition!

I definitely don’t want to have a big function at my house like I originally planned. But I think I would regret it if I didn’t share the tradition of Thanksgiving with some of my closest friends in the village.

So, I decide that tonight I’m going to have a little Thanksgiving dinner at my house. Goaba, Wakgotla and Mabe all say they’ll come. That’s a perfect number of people.

Get up, and make a list of things I need to buy for tonight. Heck, I should leave work early so that I can go home and cook. Thanksgiving is no joke in the kitchen!

Make the eggs and coffee, and decide to get to work early today.

Start walking to work. I notice that the poor little calf that has been sitting along the side of the road has finally gotten up from its spot and is gone.

It’s another hot one today, so I carry my umbrella for shade. Arrive at work, and as usual we have a million things to do to prepare for the football tournament.

I learn that two of the men who received the savingrams yesterday didn’t like the use of the words “football tournament” on their letters and requested new letters, because they don’t think their supervisors will let them off of work if they think they’re just planning a football tournament. Bontle rewrote the letters for them, which was very nice of her.

Work on putting out all of the fires this morning. I tell Bontle I need to leave early today so I can prepare the food for tonight and invite her to attend as well.

Keep working until about 2 pm. Text Goaba and tell her I’ll be leaving work early to buy the food for tonight. She says she has gotten permission from her supervisor to leave work early to help me out. Woo hoo!

We agree to meet at Choppies and go shopping together and then she’ll give me a ride home.

I walk over to Choppies and start picking up the things I need. Goaba arrives and we peruse the vegetable section together. We run into another volunteer who lives in a nearby village. She is clearly shopping to have a Thanksgiving, too, with other volunteers.

I did send a text message to invite all of the nearby volunteers to my Thanksgiving event, but only one person responded saying they couldn’t come. No one else acknowledged the message. I’m gathering that’s because they had already planned a Thanksgiving between themselves. That’s fine! I’m happy to focus on just sharing the tradition with my friends in the village as I originally anticipated.

We exchange hellos and then I continue to fill up the cart with things I need for tonight.

Put everything in Goaba’s car. She says she’ll go home after she drops me off to get some dishes we can use for tonight. Great! I still need to buy cornstarch and cheese because the grocery store didn’t have those items.

We drive over to Trans because I have never seen cornstarch in Botswana, except for this one store. I’ve been eyeing the box for months and know exactly where it is. My recipe for cranberry sauce using the dried cranberries I found in Gabs calls for it.

I head straight to the aisle where it is, and now it’s gone! They have reorganized the store since last week, and cornstarch is gone.

What?!

We roam up and down the aisles searching, but it’s nowhere to be found. Everyone we ask doesn’t know what we are talking about. Finally, we find a worker who tells us it’s gone, but that the Sefalana on the other side of the village should have it.

Shucks. Okay, so, we drive across the village and stop at Mokala for cheese and bacon. They have both things. Fab!

Head next door to Sefalana, and voila! They have the exact cornstarch I was looking for. We pay and then Goaba drives me home.

Go inside and immediately start cleaning my kitchen and washing dishes to prepare. Change into more comfortable clothes and start cooking.

Cook the bacon in the oven and boil potatoes. LOTS of potatoes. I’m making my famous twice baked potato casserole that I make every year for Thanksgiving and mashed potatoes with gravy.

Goaba arrives and I help her carry the big dishes she brought in from the car. We get cookin! Goaba is a huge fan of country music. So, we play some Dolly Parton, Casey Musgraves and Dixie Chicks while we cook.

I show her how to make stuffing using celery, dried bread and spices. Then, as we make mashed potatoes and I see her cutting up tomatoes and green peppers.

I’m having a heart attack.

Is she going to put tomatoes and green peppers in the mashed potatoes???

OH NO. I try to remain calm, but casually ask why she is cutting up peppers and tomatoes for mashed potatoes.

She assures me she won’t put them in the potatoes, she’s making them as a garnish, which to me means they don’t go in the food they go on the side. Cool.

Then I see her cut up the skins and put them inside the potatoes.

Oh no!

I don’t know why it is so important to me not to have tomato and pepper skins in the mashed potatoes. It seems very important to me to make them American style with just butter and cream, salt and pepper. I probably should have just let her put them in the potatoes, but mashed potatoes are my favorite food of the night. It’s like having a little piece of home with me, and it won’t feel like home if they are mixed with vegetables!

This is the moment when we both realize that mashed potatoes mean something different to us. Here in Bots, they garnish the mashed potatoes and put mayo in them. I was confused as to why she was buying mayo in the grocery store. It didn’t occur to me that it was for mashed potatoes or that they could be made differently here!

She agrees to use my recipe, and I’m grateful, though I probably should have welcomed a fusion of the cultures! I slap myself on the wrist in my mind for being so rigid about wanting American style mashed potatoes.

Together we make cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn bread (using maize meal), butternut squash, potato casserole, roasted chicken thighs, salad, stuffing and an apple pie.

A real feast!

Mabe shows up and hangs out on the front porch making phone calls until we are ready. Wakgotla joins as well and they both go to get some Coca Cola for us to drink.

The food is finally ready!

We all eat and talk and listen to music. Mabe leaves and we give him a plate of food to bring to his wife. Wakgotla and I play cards while Goaba chats with us.

Soon they all go home, we are all full and happy. I’m glad I decided to do a last minute Thanksgiving. Apparently from the mashed potato situation, it is important to me to maintain certain traditions and celebrate the American culture once in a while.

Before leaving the country, I wasn’t very clear on what American culture meant to me. It seemed I lived a normal life of going to work, grocery shopping, traveling and seeing my loved ones just like anyone else around the world. What about that makes it American?

Now that I live outside of the country, I can see that even a small thing like making mashed potatoes is uniquely American. I am grateful to be surrounded by friends who are so open to learning my culture, and sharing theirs with me. But the truth is, even in the United States, the way I make mashed potatoes is different from the way another family makes them.

That’s what is truly special about the US; there are so many cultures in one place and we all have our own traditions. What is American to me might be different to another American. The only thing that truly unites us is that we are American.

I know that Thanksgiving is an important American tradition to me, as is having a Christmas tree with Santa Claus, carving pumpkins at Halloween and the Fourth of July.

Likewise, I love celebrating Boipuso in Botswana, ululating at big events. learning to eat phaleche with my hands and feeling welcome to check people at any time in their home.

But American football? No thanks.

And tipping everywhere in the US? Over that.

I’m happy to be here and blend the two cultures together. I’d say any time people leave full and happy celebrating a big meal together, it was a success.

Boroko 🌙

*Alternative ending to the story: yes, Wakgotla and I played cards, but during that time Goaba decided this would also be her goodbye party before moving to Gabs and made whiskey her best friend. Her speech became more slurred and she had a blast. Maybe too much fun… soon we found her in the yard puking under the full moon! Thankfully, Wakgotla doesn’t drink, so when she felt a bit better he drove her home in her car and then called a taxi for himself to go home. It was a grand old time indeed!

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