Scrubbing potatoes for a holiday meal, I felt the frigid water on my hands and thought of my childhood home.
Long before I ever heard the words “fingerling” or “Yukon gold,” I helped my mother mash potatoes for holidays and Sundays. She believed pan drippings deserved a creamy mound from which to scoop a gravy lake. Part of the fun was eating around the mound without breaching the dam, so all the gravy was saved for the last salty, juicy bite.
But for everyday meals, we usually baked potatoes. Every night we scrubbed eight potatoes from a 50-pound bag, stabbed them a few times and rolled them right onto a hot oven rack. Often, we had guests for dinner, not formal guests, expected and planned for, just whoever was playing in the basement with my brother or doing homework with my sisters.
Somehow, I can’t remember how we expanded the meat and vegetables – perhaps we just ate smaller portions – but I do know that everyone was welcome, and everyone got their own potato. We counted who was in the house an hour or so before dinner, and scrubbed one for each.
Dinner was expected promptly at 6:30. Counting backwards, this meant 5:30 was the very latest we could start baking the potatoes even if we turned the oven to 450 degrees. Sometimes, in those pre-microwave days, we had to speed up the cooking process to meet our deadline.
Our house had been a boarding house during World War II, and there were buzzers from the kitchen to all the floors. If my mother pressed the buzzers repeatedly near dinner time, we knew she needed all four of her daughters in the kitchen right away. As soon as we ran into the kitchen, we turned the burners to high, and the electric stove glowed red before we even figured out what to put in the pots.
I’d start the water boiling in our largest pot, peel the potatoes, and cut them in tiny pieces to simmer quickly. We had other tricks, too: my sister shaved the ground beef with a sharp knife so the tiny pieces would thaw faster. It was kind of a game for us, getting the meal on the table by 6:30. Behind the swinging doors to the dining room, my father and grandfather rattled their newspapers and pointedly checked their watches. Our friends and boyfriends became accustomed to our mad dash to the kitchen at dinner time.
Holiday meals often meant 20 or more people, and when mashed potatoes were on the menu, we put one for each guest into two giant pots. My mother’s mashed potatoes were simple and perfect, just potatoes, butter, salt and pepper.
In the years since, I’ve added roast garlic and olive oil. I’ve left the skins on, folded in goat cheese, turnips and cauliflower. I’ve tested recipes that pile on trendy ingredients until the potato is scarcely recognizable. Still, the beginning is the same: pick a potato, scrub it clean, cut out any dents or dirty spots. As I breathe in the earthy smell from the growing pile of peels, I give thanks, not only for the dazzling feasts of the winter holidays, but also for the everyday generosity of sharing a simple family meal, and my nights in the kitchen with my mother and sisters.
Theresa Curry is the Food Editor of Flavor Magazine. She lives and writes in Waynesboro.
- ▼ December (5)