Mashed Potatoes, Made with Love

Ceci M. is currently a senior at SYA Spain and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from St. Andrew's Episcopal School in Texas.

My host mom still talks about her former SYA student’s riquísima apple pie. With high expectations to live up to, I was planning an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner by mid-November. There would be some tweaks. For one, I would celebrate the holiday with my host family on the following Saturday, because—and this may surprise you—Thanksgiving is not a thing in Spain. Instead of turkey, we would eat chicken. I would not dare take on the novel task of stuffing a bird, and plus, chicken just tastes better. But some traditions were a must. I had compelled my grandmother to share her infamous mashed potato recipe with me. With an unprecedented amount of  butter on my grocery list, this Thanksgiving would be a smashing success. 

The day started with a two-hour outing to buy groceries. My host mom and I tackled the human labyrinth at the Mercado Central, the predictable buzz at Mercadona, and the eager crowd inside La Magdalena, an old bakery. We chatted the whole time, our conversation only pausing to chat with friends we ran into on the street. Arriving home weighed down with bags, I was excited for an eclectic Thanksgiving. 

Some background: I am a great sous chef. But I have little experience as a kitchen jefa. In this terrain, my mother (the biological one) is unchallenged. In Spain, I play a similar secondary role. My host dad went to cooking school, and I enjoy helping him prepare dinner (or rather, leaning against the counter and asking him questions as I admire his effortless chopping, sauteing, and searing). Thanksgiving, supposedly in my realm of expertise, gave me the opportunity to lead the cooking. Feeling unqualified with a huge knife in my hand, I was immediately conscious of my inexperience. 

My host family, this time, played “sous chef.” My host dad, mom, and sister asked every ten minutes what they could do to help. My host brother told me to tell him when it was time to make the apple pie so he could arrange the slices of fruit to his aesthetic liking. “Espera,” I would say, and give my task force an order after studying the recipes I had written down. Five is a crowd in a tiny Spanish kitchen, but a remarkably efficient one. In a team effort, we finished cooking in two hours.

We set the products of our toil in a beautiful arrangement on the table, took the obligatory photos, and sat down to eat. The chicken: delicious. The gravy: rich. The honey butter: scrumptious. The potatoes: so moreish that my host dad requested seconds. He took a healthy spoonful and found an unpleasant surprise. With an inquiring, concerning expression on his face, he began to pull something out of his mouth. He kept going until the end of a long brown hair emerged. With groceries to feed a village, I had forgotten to buy one vital ingredient: a hairnet. 

My face turned as red as cranberry sauce. As an outsider living in Spain, I have had to assume a kind of inferiority. Immersion is adaptation, and absorbing the Spanish culture and language has compelled me to surrender many of my habits and most of my pride. Embarrassing situations—dinner disasters, for example—demand humility. Upon seeing what belongs on my head in a dinner dish, my only option was to laugh at myself and hope that the flavor of the mashed potatoes outshined its unwelcome obstacles. Luckily, my host family was laughing too. And still enjoying every bite.

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