Thursday, March 15, 2012

Just some boiled potatoes in their big deal?

       Monday evening I decided to boil some potatoes for dinner for myself, Brian and Mary (two volunteers currently working in the village). Usually the guest house cooks, John and Senator, would get involved in the process somehow, regardless of how simple it was or how many times I’ve done it (John is of the firm belief that Westerners never cook and therefore he must teach us as much as possible), but today I decided to try to attempt to cook by myself. Given the lack of a balanced diet, I thought it would be a great idea to boil the potatoes in their jackets to get some much needed roughage, which made Brian, a volunteer from Ireland and our resident potato expert, very happy.

    Having successfully scrubbed the potatoes and put them in to a boiling pot of water to cook, I sat back to relax, happy that I got that far undisturbed. But this didn’t last for long. In less than 5 minutes, I heard Senator and Jerry (an assistant in the kitchen) shouting my name.

“Amanda! Amanda! Come! Your potatoes are spoilt!” they shouted across the guesthouse as I came running. Walking into the kitchen I saw Senator shaking his head, and an expression of comical disbelief on Jerry’s face.

“You have not taken the skins off. You need to take them out of that pot and remove the skins before you spoil them.” Senator advised me knowingly.

“Oh no, I like the potatoes with their skins on. They taste great and they’re good for you.” I responded.

Apparently I made the joke of the year as Senator and Jerry exploded in laughter, pointing to the potatoes in utter disbelief. Jerry finally pulled it together and got serious, “Amanda, I grow these where I come from. I know these things. You do not cook them with the skins on.”

Not willing to budge I employed Brian’s support to convince them that I was not ruining the potatoes. They may not have believed me, but at least they would believe Brian, who they referred to as “Musei”, which means wise man.  Their skepticism went down by about 0.1%.

“People do cook them with the skins on and they taste great! You should try some when I’m finished with them!” I pleaded, fishing for anything at this point to make them not throw the potatoes out.

They finally gave up, or rather, they left me to my own devices. Shuffling out of the kitchen shaking their heads, up in arms at my violation of the potatoes, I knew I convinced them of nothing but the fact that I was one crazy muzungu (aka foreigner). This would be the joke for the week in the village I was sure. I did end up making some great boiled potatoes which myself, Brian and Mary enjoyed, although I did somehow feel the need to hide them out to avoid more scandal.

As we sat back, savoring a meal other than maize and beans, I thought to myself, if it’s so difficult to convince people that you can eat a potato with its jacket on (and I don’t think I really succeeded in convincing them) how much more difficult must it be to convince people to change other cultural norms? Such practices as cooking with an open flame is believed to give the food a unique and much better taste, and soaking beans to reduce the cook time is thought to ruin the flavor or rather, it isn’t the “African” way of doing things. As I got a glimpse of the resistance to alternative ways of doing things I realized that these norms are held so closely to the culture that it’s quite a daunting task to adapt some habits. It only really sunk into me how really daunting this task was as I sat under the shade, watching the sun set on another day, boiled potatoes in their jackets hidden from scrutinizing eyes.

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