There are two major food groups: mashed potatoes, and everything else.
On Bethel Road in the 1960s, Sunday was all about mashed potatoes. Actually, to my mind, life is about mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are my perfect food. Mashed potatoes are my desert island food. I never get tired of them. When I’m celebrating, I eat mashed potatoes. When I’m sad, I eat mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes are my stress food, my happiness food, and my just-regular-old-day food. I probably bleed mashed potatoes. I like them plain, with butter, with gravy, with olive oil, under creamed vegetables, stroganoff, or chili (weird, I know). In short, any day is better with mashed potatoes.
What are the roots of this mashed potato fixation? Well, the answer lies with St. Joan, the patron saint of mashed potatoes. While she has not yet been officially canonized, I’m working on her nomination. You see, St. Joan’s mashed potatoes cured all ills and performed miracles. And every time I make mashed potatoes, she is sitting on my shoulder whispering “remember the lumps.” If I had to name one person who most shaped my lifelong food preferences, it would be St. Joan of the mashed potatoes.
I passed the first nine years of my life on Bethel Road, a gravel dead end street in Northern Virginia. It was an ideal place to be a kid. There was an excellent climbing tree at the bottom of our driveway, and my friends and I spent hours building villages and making up stories with the stones on the street. The houses (all three of them) were at the tops of the hills, so rolling down hills was a major activity. So was jumping off front stoops. In those days, it snowed a fair amount in the DC area (it was just at the end of the last ice age), and we sledded and built enormous snow forts. My bestie, Jeannie, and I would swing on my swing set, as high as we could go, and sing the Beatles” “Help” at the tops of our lungs. I still remember all the words, and when I sing them, I’m back on that swing.
One of our neighbors was All Saints’ Sharon Chapel Episcopal church, which was – for the first few years we lived there – a charming, wood, Civil War era chapel with a wonderful stained glass window of the Good Shepherd. My father played the organ there, and my mother was on the altar guild. Jeannie and her family went there, too. And every Sunday, I went to her family’s house for Sunday dinner. Her Mom, Joan, made a traditional Sunday dinner – roast beast, various vegetables, and . . . wait for it . . . MASHED POTATOES. The absolutely most extraordinary mashed potatoes in the entire mashed potato universe. She always – at least in those early years – mashed them by hand, so they were the ideal combination of creamy and lumpy. Rules 1-10 of mashed potatoes: MASHED POTATOES HAVE LUMPS. On the rare Sunday when there were no mashed potatoes, my little world collapsed.
I was born with wonky tonsils, and I spent an inordinate amount of my childhood housebound with tonsillitis. On those Sundays when I was too sick to go to Jeannie’s for Sunday dinner, Saint Joan would appear at the door with a bowl of mashed potatoes. When my parents finally gave in to the inevitable and had my tonsils taken out, I was unimpressed with promises of ice cream. But when St. Joan promised as many mashed potatoes as I could eat, I was there! Where’s the operating room? Bring on the ether!
At the age of six – just a few weeks before I was to be the flower girl at my Auntie J’s wedding – I rode my bike down a steep hill into a ditch (I knew how to go, I didn’t know how to stop), slashed open my chin (six stitches), and knocked out my two front teeth. When I got home from the Emergency Room, who was there waiting? Saint Joan of the mashed potatoes! Oh, joy! Manna from heaven.
Who needs Lourdes when you have St. Joan’s mashed potatoes. They cured whatever ailed you.
When my family moved to Georgia in 1967, it seemed my mashed potato universe would implode. My Mom made nice smooth mashed potatoes with the mixer. I kept trying to explain that mashed potatoes have lumps. But she just couldn’t do lumpy mashed potatoes like St. Joan. It’s a gift. A calling. Happily, for years after we moved, I would take the Southern Crescent train from Georgia back to Alexandria: ostensibly to visit Jeannie, but really? It was a mashed potato pigrimmage.
Eventually, I grew up and Jeannie left home and the mashed potato pilgrimages ended. I still visited St. Joan from time to time, and she would look at me, and smile, and say “Awwww, little CARE – oh – line” in her distinctive West Virginia drawl and make me feel very loved. But the mashed potato days were over. The last time I saw St. Joan, she came to dinner with my folks at my townhouse in Annandale where I served, you guessed it, mashed potatoes. Were they up to snuff? Probably not, but St. Joan never criticized. She just smiled and said: “Awww! Little CARE-oh-line!”
There is a great deal of debate about mashed potatoes. Some experts insist they must be made with Russet (or, in the Southern Hemisphere, Agria) potatoes. Others advocate using waxy (Red Rose or Moonshine), or even new potatoes. I actually like a combination of floury and waxy: the waxy potatoes go all creamy and you can count on the floury potatoes (provided they aren’t over cooked) for some decent lumps.
St. Joan, as far as I remember, always peeled her potatoes, but I like to leave at least some unpeeled. This adds flavor, vitamins and all-important lumps.
As for mashing liquid, I’m agnostic regarding the relative merits of skim versus whole milk or cream. Just potato-cooking water will do in a pinch, or if you are vegan, but I never do it. The real key is to cook them just enough and not one bit more. And please, please, please, don’t let them sit in the cooking water. It won’t keep them warm, it will just make them watery. Better to go ahead and mash and then reheat in the oven. Mashed potatoes are very forgiving.
It’s all about the potatoes.
Mashed potatoes need fat. I’m a butter girl. I add butter before I mash, and more after I mash. Under certain circumstances, olive oil works. Margarine? You can if you want. I never touch the stuff.
I must confess to St. Joan that I never mastered hand mashing. I always watched her. She had this magical sort of round-and-round, full-body mashing technique. I’ve tried numerous types of potato mashers, and I just can’t get the right rhythm or that perfect cream / lump balance. I’ve used potato ricers and food mills. They make super fluffy, creamy, but, sadly, lump-free mashed potatoes. [They are good for mashing potatoes for other uses, like gnocchi.] A handheld electric mixer is the next-best thing to hand mashing, they aren’t powerful enough to over-mash and eliminate all the lumps. I had to re-home my hand mixer when I moved to New Zealand. I’ve tried the masher attachment on my immersion blender, but that didn’t work at all. So, I’ve had to resort to using my big, standing mixer. When I had a Kitchen Aide mixer, even with the paddle attachment, it was too efficient and eliminated the lumps. The one I have in New Zealand does pretty well, leaving a good amount of lumps. That is excellent for mashed potatoes, less wonderful for cake batter.
Never, ever, ever . . . really NEVER mash your lovely potatoes in the food processor. They will immediately turn into horrible gluey glop fit only for hanging wallpaper.
In the end, the perfect mashed potato is a very personal matter. My perfect mashed potato isn’t necessarily your perfect mashed potato. So experiment. And remember, St. Joan of the Mashed Potatoes is always smiling down on us!