Turkey is delicious. Ham deserves an honorable mention. Stuffing is difficult to beat, and green beans, corn, and sweet potato casserole are all Christmas dinner regulars. And yet, by far the most important dish of a holiday feast is the mashed potatoes. If this essay were a meme, it’d be one of those “Mashed potatoes are the ultimate food. Change my mind,” memes, except, this isn’t a meme, and there’s no point in trying to change my mind because the centrality of mashed potatoes at holiday mealtime is an undisputed truth. 

Step 1: Picking the Potatoes.

For estimating the amount, select two to three small potatoes per person, or one medium-large potato per person. Use high-starch varieties, like russet or golden potatoes. Select individuals with few tubers growing from them. If the potato is beginning to turn green under the skin then the potato may be mildly toxic. A bit of green under the potato skin is okay, but in general it should be avoided.

The humble potato; Solanum tuberosum, for you binomial fans; is a member of the nightshade family Solanaceae, a plant lineage it shares with tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants, and tobacco. The potato first appeared on the culinary stage in Peru where, nearly 10,000 years ago, the Inca began to propagate varieties of an edible tuber they called the papa. The plant’s beauty was in its versatility—it could be mashed, roasted, fried, steamed, eaten alone or as a component of a larger meal. As the old saying goes, “boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew.”

Step 2: Preparing the Potato.

Peel and dice the potatoes, and set a large pot of salted water to boil. When dicing, aim for the size of about half of a hardboiled egg. Cubing the potatoes this way allows them to be evenly cooked, yet also allows for an inconsistent mash, providing both creamy and firm textures in the final result. 

The Solanaceae family is economically crucial for its consumability, yet many of its members also harbor deadly chemical compounds. Even in the familiar plants we know and love, the toxins reside. Tomato leaves are mildly toxic; eggplants must be cooked before eating; and potatoes, when exposed to sunlight, begin to develop the poisonous compound solanine and should not be eaten. It’s no surprise then, that when European farmers were first introduced to the potato they feared planting it in their own fields, hesitant of the potential toxicity of this foreign crop. Eventually, despite the poisonous potentials, the potato would steal the hearts, via the stomachs, of the world.

Step 3: Cooking.

Boil the potatoes until fork-tender. If undercooked, the potatoes will retain an unsatisfactory crunch; if overcooked, the mash may turn pasty and gooey. Neither of these alternatives is really that disappointing, but aiming for a fork-tender consistency is wise. 

One could conclude that a potato’s toxicity ought to downgrade its position at the holiday table. On the contrary, I’d say a potato’s toxicity is a reminder that in order for a plant to survive it must protect itself (in this case, through toxins) and that in order for us to prepare an honest meal each ingredient must be treated according to its tendencies (in the potato’s case, stored in a cool dark place away from sunlight). Anything worth doing, or worth cooking, requires detailed attention.

Step 4: Mashing and Serving.

When ready, drain the water, retaining at least one cup of the potato tea to save for later. Keeping the potatoes in the pot in which they were cooked, add melted butter and milk and mash using a large wooden spoon or some potato mashing device. Mash and add potato tea and melted butter until the desired texture and flavor is achieved. Serve warm.

I learned to cook mashed potatoes from my grandma. This was my second Christmas without her, but I feel her life expressing herself through me still, vibrantly. In no way is she more present with me than when I cook mashed potatoes. I think that’s because they’re so simple, and that when it comes down to it, all they really are is the love with which they’re made. Like love, there’s nothing complicated about cooking mashed potatoes; and if it feels complicated, you’re doing it wrong.

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