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one potato, two potato

When it comes to judging restaurants, many people compare the same dish in each. How was the filet mignon? The chili? The fried chicken? The French onion soup? For B., it’s the pesto. For me, it’s something much simpler and more basic. The potatoes. The mashed potatoes, that is.

Of course, the comparison only works in establishments that offer said potatoes, but there are plenty of those, to be sure. My top-rated venues range from our neighborhood Northern Italian place (garlic mashed potatoes that could make you swoon) to a local diner (just salted enough to make me crave even more) to a road-trip barbecue joint (leave the brisket, take the spuds). In short, if they’re serving mashed potatoes, I’m trying mashed potatoes.

It’s not surprising, given that I’m someone who believes that carbs equal hugs, that carbs equal curves (in a good way), and that carbs basically put the comfort in food. All in moderation, of course (yeah, I’ll let you know how that goes). And when it comes to carbs, mashed potatoes are my hug of choice. Am I really the only one who daydreams about floating on a cloud of mashed potatoes, sleeping on a bed of them, or crawling inside a pillowy pile and feeling safe, warm, and deliciously blissful? (Please tell me it’s not just me).

My two favorite mashed-potato recipes have nothing to do with restaurants, though, and everything to do with emotions (there’s a shock).

The first is my grandmother’s made-with-love mashed potatoes. Her secret ingredient? Chicken fat, aka schmaltz. Yes, I know – the thought doesn’t appeal to me at all today. But, as a little girl who didn’t know better, I couldn’t get enough.

My grandmother lived with us and would buy whole chickens (feet still attached – yikes!) fresh from the kosher-butcher shop. After cutting the chickens up herself (the sight was enough to send me running outside), she would collect the fat and render it down to a golden liquid by simmering it slowly on the stove. Then she’d add it to the potatoes, get out her masher and – voilà! – absolute irresistibleness. Haute-cuisine chefs reach for duck fat today, but I’d hold my grandmother’s nothing-fancy, learned-in-the-shtetl, schmaltz-laden recipe up to theirs any time.

The second recipe comes from, of all places (surprisingly), the summer day camp I went to for years as a kid. I was not much of an athlete back then (nor today, I’m proud to say) and was often the last person picked when the team captains chose their players for volleyball or kickball or tug of war or … well, you get it. I also hated the swim sessions because I was terrified of the water (also somewhat true today). After a morning’s worth of feeling like I didn’t fit in (everyone else was pre-Olympics level, in my mind), lunchtime came as a welcome break.

Whatever was on the menu that day, mashed potatoes were a constant (hey, this was in the 1960s, when nutritionally balanced, lots-of-fruit-and-veggies, lean-protein meals weren’t a priority). I loved those mashed potatoes – creamy, buttery, and with enough black pepper that you could see specks of it in each scoop. Yes, those potatoes were empirically delicious, but, more important, they were a comforting hug after those tough mornings and the perfect lead-in to afternoons filled with arts & crafts, music, and drama (all creative activities that I loved and felt at home doing).

I didn’t learn to cook until I moved in with B. (he was way more accomplished in the kitchen) and one of my first ventures was, you guessed it, mashed potatoes. I asked him to pick up the ingredients for me when he ran out to do some errands – one sweet potato for him (I found out, only after moving in, that he didn’t like mashed potatoes – good thing everything else worked out); one white potato for me; butter; cream. What I got back was one sweet potato, butter, cream, and one small, round, white new potato. Uh-oh.

Me: (pointing to the small white potato) What’s with this?

He: What?

Me: I asked for a white potato. What’s this?

He: It’s a white potato. That’s what the sign said.

Me: (impatiently trying to remain patient) But that’s not what I needed. I needed a large white baking potato to make mashed potatoes. You know, the kind you peel – an Idaho potato.

He: (patiently trying not to get impatient) That’s not what you asked for. You asked for a white potato. You should have asked for a russet potato.

Me: I grew up with two kinds of potatoes – sweet potatoes and white potatoes.

He: You grew up with sweet potatoes and russet potatoes.

Me: Seriously? You’re telling me that russet potatoes aren’t white potatoes?

He: No, I’m telling you that apparently they’re called russet potatoes in the store and if you ask for white potatoes you’ll get this (holding up the white potato).

Me: (tears starting to form and voice starting to quaver) But you should have known what I meant. We’re going to get married and you don’t understand me at all.

He: (thinking it might might be easier just to take me out to dinner) I do understand you, sweetie. I just didn’t understand what kind of potato you were asking for.

Me: (sniffling) But what if the potato is a metaphor for our relationship?

He: (not knowing whether to laugh or bang the potato against his head) It’s not. Trust me. Sometimes a potato is just a potato.

Indeed. The perfect mash.

© 2022 Claudia Grossman

2 comments on “one potato, two potato

  1. I absolutely agree, half my lovely ribeye can follow me home, my mashed potatoes are exhaled immediately. I have just enough Irish in me that I’ve never met a potato I didn’t like. Raw with salt works. Being from New Mexico, nothing beats a baked russet with red chili. It’s can be enhanced with butter, cheese and sour cream but absolutely works with just chili.

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