For many people, Thanksgiving dinner is about turkey, stuffing, or pie, but for me, it’s all about the mashed potatoes. They weren’t a staple at the first Thanksgiving, or even many years later, but mashed potatoes are now a primary side dish at just about every Thanksgiving table.
When you talk about potatoes, most people think of Ireland and the Great Potato Famine of the 1800s and assume that the potato is a European crop, but that’s not true. In fact, potatoes are actually a New World crop Spanish sailors brought to Europe in the 1500s.
The popular tuber had been cultivated by the Incas in Peru going all the way back to 5,000-8,000 B.C. Used not only for eating, potatoes were an integral part of Incan culture. By the end of the sixteenth century, they had made their way to Europe and were spreading from Spain to Ireland and beyond.
Because potatoes were easy to grow, cheap, and nutritious, they became a staple foodstuff of many peasants and farmers in the western world. That is why the Irish potato famine was so devastating. It was the primary crop farmers used to feed their families, and when blight began killing much of their potatoes in 1845 it led to the death of millions, and was a factor in the mass migration of Irish to America.
Even though the history of the potato is well-documented, the origin of mashed potatoes is a little murkier. Some accounts say the Incas mashed their potatoes, but not in the way we think of them today. Modern mashed potatoes, which incorporate butter, cream, and other dairy products, first appeared in print in the mid-to-late eighteenth century in “The Art of Cookery” by Hannah Glasse.
Glasse was the Julia Child of her time, and her book was wildly popular in Britain and its colonies. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington all owned copies of the “The Art of Cookery,” which at one point was nearly 400 pages long.
Others claim that a Frenchman, Antoine Parmentier, is responsible for modern mashed potatoes. He promoted the use of potatoes in France beginning in the late 1700s, and is said to have won a contest (that he started) with his recipe for mashed potatoes.
No matter where they originated, mashed potatoes are now inseparable from Thanksgiving. My current recipe dates back to the 1980s when I lived in Detroit. My grandmother came up with what we now call “Thanksgiving Mashed Potatoes” (because we only make them at Thanksgiving), and it’s the potato bible I now follow.
Here’s what makes these different from what many other families produce: I don’t whip them. I mash and stir the finished potatoes, but I leave them a little chunky. I like the texture it gives the dish. I also use baking potatoes, not golden like many people do.
So here’s how it works. Skin nine baking potatoes, and cut them into chunks a little bit bigger than cubes of one square inch. Place them in a large pot, fill it with water, and boil until they are tender. You’ll know they’re done when you can easily poke a fork through them.
Empty the water from the pot, then put it back on the stovetop with the potatoes still inside. Add a full stick of butter, a full brick of cream cheese, a cup and a half of sour cream, and a splash of heavy cream.
Mash and stir the mixture until the dairy is all incorporated and most of the potato pieces are smooth. This is the key moment: do not get out your hand mixer or whisk. This means you’ll get a rougher texture than if you mixed them smooth.
Finally, salt and pepper to taste, place in a dish, and put a slice of butter on top to melt before serving. Never, ever cover your finished potatoes with gravy. You’ll just ruin the taste that you worked so hard to achieve. Gravy is for turkey.
That’s it, the perfect mashed potatoes. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish off the last bit of leftover potatoes from last week. So tasty.