Pilgrim Spuds

spuds 1119

My job today is to mash the potatoes. We are having a very quiet Thanksgiving, the first in our new house, but there’s no point in having any Thanksgiving at all if there aren’t mashed potatoes. I’m pretty sure that’s what brought the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag together that first year, potatoes smushed down and enhanced with milk, butter and salt.

Although now I’m learning, in my five minutes of research, that really the first Thanksgiving feast in what is now the United States probably took place in 1565 in Florida, when a Spanish explorer invited the local Timucua to a mass to thank God for his crew’s safe arrival. (I’m sure that’s what the Timucua thought too: thank God for the safe arrival of these white people.)

I’m also learning — and you have no idea how this saddens me — that while some tubers may have been present at Plymouth way back in 1621, none of them were potatoes. The Spanish “discovered” spuds in their native land of South America and took them back to Europe starting around 1570 (natives: sooo glad the white people arrived), but by the time the Mayflower set sail the Brits had yet to develop an appreciation for one of the world’s most versatile foodstuffs, and potatoes, which had zigged from South America to Europe, had yet to zag back to North America.

So, no mashed potatoes at that more-or-less first feast. Swans, perhaps, venison definitely, lobster likely, but no potatoes and no pie. (An entire continent, and not a single oven to be found in which to bake a pie. Plus, the imported sugar was nearly or completely gone.) If only the Pilgrims knew what they were missing!

As perhaps you are aware, I am not much of a cook. Mashed potatoes may be the most exotic item in my repertoire. Lynn, who always thinks she wants help in the kitchen but really doesn’t, watches my gyrations in great pain, telling me how to do things better before finally remembering that if she wants me to do it, she needs to let me fumble around on my own.

I was not always the maker of mashed potatoes. I used to show up, mostly empty-handed, which I believe was how people expected me to arrive, to wherever I was invited. But one year, pre-Lynn, Bob and I decided we would cook for some of our friends. Once, long ago, my mother gave me a Betty Crocker basic cookbook. Lynn got one, maybe from her mother, as well, but hers looks used while mine remains to this day in mint condition.

But for this first Thanksgiving, I pulled the book out and found the page for mashed potatoes. (Bob, nominally better at cooking than me, took responsibility for the turkey.) Even at her most basic, Betty forgot to account for the non-cooks who might be reading her, and Bob and I learned a valuable lesson that year: never — and I mean never — put potato peels down the garbage disposal. Make this mistake, and you spend a large portion of your food prep time in taking the sink apart.

We persevered, and got a meal mostly on time to our guests, who all seemed to find it edible. Since then, whenever called upon to contribute, this is what I have managed: mashed potatoes and vegetables, always prepared with much assistance from the Green Giant.

Since those early days, I have become somewhat of a potato connoisseur, thanks to the Gunnison Farmers’ Market. I even, last year on our new lot, planted and brought to fruition a tiny handful of my own potatoes. (Although I must confess that Lynn took responsibility for most of the watering.)

What I have learned along the way is that no matter how fun it is to both say and look at a Purple Viking, when you swirl it into your mash, it does not retain its vibrant purple stripes, but ends up making your spuds look rather gray.

The last two or three years I have laid in our winter supply of potatoes from Susan of Gunnison Gardens. Susan is an enthusiastic farmer who is also an engineer (water, I think), and perhaps this explains her penchant for the world’s largest cabbages but a rather pedestrian selection of potatoes. Last year it was all Yukon Golds; this year there may be some russets in the mix, but they’re all as white as the Europeans who were foolishly welcomed by those already living on American soil.

So, white mashed potatoes it is, which frankly is more aesthetically pleasing than gray. You have no idea how sad it is that the purple stripes don’t show up as I want them to, and now that I think about it, I don’t believe I’ve ever tried a mash of straight-up purple, and now I can’t because no one sells many of the purple varieties in Gunnison any more. Perhaps that’s just as well: once I took a purple cake I’d made to a party, and most people were afraid to try it.

The taste is what really matters, and Susan’s tubers, still carrying the Gunnison dirt in which they were grown on them (don’t worry — I scrub them thoroughly), are highly flavorful, especially when mixed with some butter and milk. And we don’t have to fear for the plumbing, because these days I just leave the peels on (with their soft skins, Yukon Golds work well for this).

I hope you all enjoy your meal today, hopefully shared with family and/or friends, but most of all I wish for you a bounty of mashed potatoes. Just like the Pilgrims would have had. If only they’d known.

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