The funny thing about mayonnaise

It was dinnertime and I was starving. But the rain was coming down in sheets with no sign of stopping and I wasn’t thrilled about trudging through the mud so I could buy oil to fry up some fish and potatoes.

I lingered on the porch hoping a kid would pass by so I could send him to the store. Soon enough, our family friend Sofia sauntered up to our door to say hello. She was already sopping wet so I didn’t feel too bad sending the eighth grader to the shop in a storm.

“I want oil and some mayonnaise,” I told her, pressing a large bill into her hand. “You can buy something with the change since it’s raining and you are too nice.”

A few minutes later she returned and nonchalantly handed me the change and a black plastic bag before running off to her house. I went inside and opened the bag; it contained laundry soap and tobacco.

I was more confused in this moment than when I opened my college report form and saw that I somehow passed economics despite failing all the tests. Why would Sofia think I desperately needed laundry soap and tobacco? A) It’s the middle of a severe rainstorm. B) I don’t smoke. Just like the long formulas on my economics exams, something just wasn’t adding up here.

I took the items into my family’s room next door and my sisters immediately doubled over with laughter, which also threw me into a giggle fit of my own. “But really … what?!” I managed to squeak out when I came up for air.

Finally my sisters gained enough composure to explain that the Jola word for tobacco is “manais” which sounds only slightly different than the English word for the condiment “mayonnaise.” We racked our brains for how oil and laundry soap could be mixed up to no avail.

Sofia has yet to live down this mix up and we take every opportunity to tease her without mercy. Especially since apparently the shop owner repeatedly asked her, “Are you sure Fatoumata wants tobacco? She has never bought tobacco in the year that she has been coming to my shop. In fact, she always tells me that it is bad to smoke.”

The funny thing about mayonnaise is I wouldn’t have dared to touch the stuff a year ago. I was originally neutral about the condiment when I lived in the States. I’d spread it on my sandwich every now and then and didn’t mind it in pasta salad. I didn’t go out of my way to eat it, but I didn’t avoid it either.

Then I moved to Chile, a mayonnaise-loving nation if I ever saw one. Chileans put gobs of unrefrigerated mayonnaise on top of everything – bread, salad, hot dogs. It began to gross me out a little bit and eventually I was so repelled by it that I stopped eating it altogether.

Then I moved to The Gambia, another country seemingly obsessed with mayonnaise. Initially, I continued to avoid it. And then one day everything changed in one defining moment in my on-again, off-again relationship with the gooey white paste.

I was really hungry after barely eating the local food for weeks during my initial transition to the country’s cuisine. Then my family severed me plain spaghetti noodles with nothing but mayonnaise mixed in. I hesitantly started to eat because I was too hungry to refuse. I half-expected to gag, but instead, the meal was the best thing I had eaten in weeks. I devoured every last bite.

Since then I happily add mayonnaise to pretty much anything. I have consciously not bought my own jar though in my attempt to limit my intake of the fatty condiment. Instead, I buy it in small quantities on rare and special occasions and my friendly shopkeeper scoops it out of the unrefrigerated 5-gallon bucket featuring a raw egg on the label. Yum!

–JDF