01 March, 2007

Thanksgiving Potatoes

(This is copyrighted by GreenPrints magazine (http://greenprints.com/), October, 2005 - it ran in their Fall edition. It is reproduced here by permission.)

On Thanksgiving morning, I set to work to fulfill my promise of arriving with mashed potatoes and baked yams for 16. The previous week, my sister had delegated to family members different culinary tasks and when asked to do potatoes and yams, I blithely said, “sure”, even though I had never in my life mashed potatoes for more than two. I was at work and fresh off the phone, I turned to my co-worker and said, “so how many potatoes is that?” and, without ever looking up from her desk, she said, “three potatoes for every 2 guests”. Quickly – and rather intelligently, I might add - I instantly leapt the boundaries of time and space and quantified my family’s Irish heritage and our inherent magnetic attraction to carbohydrates and anything that serves, even remotely, as a platform for butter and concluded I needed 4 potatoes for each person for dinner.

I live in a small house. Maybe I should say a “very” small house. Kitchens, placed as they usually are on the inside of a house, are smaller than the house. I have a very small kitchen. Maybe I should say a “very, very” small kitchen. This was brought forcibly to my attention about two years ago when my sister graciously bought me a pasta/stew pot for Christmas. I had asked for a three quart (+/-) soup pot “just like the one you have”, cute little stainless steel soup pot absolutely perfect to prepare soups and whatnot for two or three people. It’s just me and, sometimes, a girlfriend. One, two or, very rarely, thank God, three people – and I like leftovers only once in a while, somewhere around semi-annually. Using a mathematical equation that seems to have a genetic link, for Christmas I received a 12 quart “Swiss Army Knife” soup pot. Pasta insert, steamer basket, etc. I did not have room for the pot; I didn’t have room for the accessories. It just didn’t fit, and besides, what army was going to come over and help me finish the meal?

OK. So where was I? Oh yes. 4 times 16. That's 64 potatoes to mash. The day before Thanksgiving, carefully weighed, that amounted to almost 18 pounds of potatoes. I dug a few more good looking spuds until I had something that looked very much like a 25 pound sack of potatoes and wondered if I had enough. I've grown potatoes since I was a boy at the side of my beloved grandfather, “Jacob Shannon.” The fork sinking into the earth near each withered plant, hoping not to spear a precious spud underground and yet not getting too much extra soil, is a cellular part of my being. Even at best in a sandy soil, which is not my soil, that qualifies as hard work. However, in anticipation of the coming celebration and my triumphant feats of culinary and horticultural perspicacity, that fork slipped with a tad less effort into the soil and those gorgeous potatoes, with their little mud buttons rose like magic from the cool earth. I was thinking this looked like my ticket to a pretty impressive entrance.

I was going to mash them by hand. I recalled this talent of mine, applied when I used to date a woman who liked mashed potatoes. Imagine my surprise when I found out – early on Thanksgiving morning, - that I don’t even own a potato masher. Then I realized, I was the mashed potato masher; having deemed that making mashed potatoes for two individuals on a rare occasion did not warrant a genuine manufactured potato masher. I had thought to buy one, but had remained satisfied with two knifes held parallel to do the deed. As I began to come to grips with the task at hand, I began to feel my dauntless spirit daunting. Twenty-five pounds of uncooked, unmashed, unbuttered potatoes stared sullenly from the bag. Suddenly I brightened, I could do this task incrementally: I would start with the sweet potatoes!

There were fewer yams to deal with. In the first place, it was a smaller recipe and in the second place sweet potatoes don’t carry the same emotional baggage for my family as do white potatoes, which are often, point of fact, called “Irish potatoes”. The yam recipe called for 8 yams for 6 people, I multiplied that out to 32 yams for 24 people. But in my minds eye, when I saw 32 yams, it took my breath away and I sat staring into space, numbed by the task at hand. I decided whatever gene it took to make folks consume that many yams wasn’t present in our family and I cut the recipe down to 20 yams with another magical mathematical twinkle. Which worked out because when I counted my sweet potato harvest, I only had 24 of them.

So, all those sweet potatoes got scrubbed and offed into a canning pot (the largest of all my pots, reserved for special occasions – it lives in the garage), the heat turned up and I got myself another cup of coffee. The recipe called to cook the sweet potatoes for 20 minutes or so, but I realized that the author had thought I was cooking 8 sweet potatoes and as a consequence, mathematics, such as I understand mathematics, had to be applied to the cooking time as well. Judging by the amount of water in the pot and those huge sweet potatoes peeking out from that water, I figured in 20 minutes the water would just be almost warm, so I hit the timer for an hour and went off to indulge in some overdue reading.

An hour and change later, while the yams cooled, I had come to grips with the operation I was about to undertake on the white spuds, so I started scrubbing the potatoes from the 25 pound stack and putting them into cold water for their turn at the heat. It was a glorious morning and I was getting grateful while I peeled the potatoes – remembering the potatoes I grew in Jacob’s enormous garden in my earlier years. I began to reflect that, compared to those, these were literally pretty small potatoes and I began to have further doubts about whether or not I had enough potatoes, the poundage issue entirely aside. Suddenly, I was reassured by the fact that not everyone invited to dinner was from my family, but that consideration struck me with terror that I hadn’t allowed enough yams. I decided, after several somewhat lengthy, and vaguely convoluted mathematical formulations, to let things fall where they might: I had my 25 pounds of Irish spuds and I had my 20 or so yams – I had drawn my line in the gravy. As it were.

The peeled potatoes were dropped into cold water and Martha Stewart, via her authoritative recipe book, had told me to boil them on high heat for 30 minutes – I know Martha didn’t realize I was doing many, many, more potatoes than the amount in her recipe that I was rather loosely following, so, it was a perfectly rational consideration that I had to add more to her allotted time. Like most rational men, I’m deathly afraid of pissing Martha off. I’ve mentioned it to my therapist several times and, while he doesn’t necessarily say anything, he’s never once called me crazy so I think I’m onto something.

I decided that I couldn’t double the cooking time even though I had doubled the potatoes and water. And since I was going to be in the kitchen working with the sweet potatoes, I simply set the timer for 20% additional time. Lets see: thirty minutes, 10% of which would be 3, double that and you have 6, round up a tad and that’s 40 minutes of potatoes on to boil.

Now back to the yams. I got really good at peeling them quickly if I didn’t really peel them at all. I found that scooping the contents out of the skins worked best--facilitated by my clever, if slightly over done, cooking time formulation. But when I consulted the recipe for the next step I was chagrined to see that I was supposed to layer slices of yam with the sugar and butter. Obviously a change in the recipe was called for and I, as I had been all morning, was up to the moment.

In the back of my mind, my Kitchen Aid mixer had been weaving its way to the forelobes of my brain. The coffee had taken hold and I was, in a word, and possibly the wrong word, inspired. I recalled there was a whisker attachment with which I could use my 5½ quart Kitchen Aid, super amp, indestructible mixer, which, while we’re on the subject, didn’t fit into my little kitchen either – it occupies a rather lonely spot in the wash room until duty called. And now, duty had called: I needed it to mash my potatoes and what a better way to start than by trying it out on the yams?

The recipe called for a quarter cup of brown sugar to be layered with a quarter cup of butter between two rows of half the sweet potatoes. I glopped half my sweet potato mush into the casserole baker and broke in pieces of butter that approximated a little more than quarter cup and sprinkled in something that just slightly exceeded the quarter cup measure of brown sugar. When I glopped the second half of the orange goop into the dish, I intuitively realized that the butter and sugar would melt and simply pool in between the yam mixture, so I scooped part of the yam goop back into the mixer where I added another equal portion of butter and sugar and pulled on the mixer’s motor lever.

Lord only knows if it was a sudden, unfathomable caffeine rush spurting into my brain, or was a very localized earthquake? Was I hit by lightening from a clear blue sky or was there an unconscious, subtle death wish? Does the leaping mathematical gene that blesses/curses my family apply to more of life than simple mathematics? Whatever it was, I don’t understand why my hand yanked that lever all the way forward with one well-buttered move. Somewhere in this mashing process, I had marveled at the glue-like consistency of mashed sweet potatoes and now, as they began to cover the entire, if rather smallish, kitchen, this glue-like consistency suddenly became the absolute focal point of my existence – my finger slipped off the lever, it had to be the butter combined with sheer terror. It was taking longer to shut the machine off than I could stand: I was hitting “fight or flight” mode, now. Mind you, I know the Kitchen Aid comes with a splatter guard, but I never use it because, honestly now, it’s never proven necessary; therefore there was nothing between me, the walls, the floor, Nick, a formerly black Scotty dog, or any other part of the western coastline and that bowl of mashed orange glop. There was nothing but my shear determination to stand there and take it, until I could shut that forsaken machine off; I knew at that moment, I was the only thing blocking these sweet potatoes from world dominance. Fortunately, I found that lever and at last the kitchen became as still as Normandy on November 26.

“Still” being a relative term, you know. Nick, looking out from underneath a layer of butter, brown sugar and orange goo was frozen in kind of a stunned stance, unsure if he was going to run or sit down and eat. Predictably, with the courage for which he is famous, he chose flight. To exit the kitchen, which he proceeded to do with abandon, he had to pass through the biggest mound of mashed yam, most of which, of course adhered to him with remarkable cohesion as he fled for his favorite hiding place, under the bed. The bedroom has white carpet. I leapt into pursuit. “Leapt”, in this case, is a relative term, as well.

All things buttered are slippery. Try it sometime. Find any surface you can conjure. Slather it in butter. Double the recipe and add a tablespoon. Or more. Freely use my understanding of mathematics. Slap that butter on your chosen surface. Now leap. Or try to… Which is what I did, I tried.

As to what happened next, I’m a little fuzzy on the details. I do remember this eerie sense of air rushing by my head, but the thing I really remember is the “yammisized” floor, so my arrival wasn’t a dull thud as it would have been on common days. On this glorious Thanksgiving morning, it was more like sound of a spatula hitting a thick batter. Kind of a mushy thud. Through spattered glasses I could see yam glop in my hair, on my hands and arms.

I sat up. This was one huge mess. Not only was yam glop on me and the floor, it was on the ceiling and the walls, cabinets, the stove – everything within a five foot radius of that mixer. How in God’s name could I show up at Thanksgiving dinner without the promised yams. Despair loomed large on the horizon. I sat on the floor contemplating the humiliation I would suffer at the hands of the folks who arrived with their appointed food projects while I stood on my sister’s stoop with a package of yams from the deli of a supermarket chain. There would be remarks about how guys couldn’t cook and being a bachelor, this could turn into a female field day. The resolve to see this thing through to the end, the bitter end, if need be, rose up from deep in my chest, for the fellowship of manhoodliness, or something like that. Down the hall, Nick burped. He had recovered his senses, and apparently immediately afterwards, his interest in food. He was starting to eat his way back to the kitchen.

If there was no going back, there was no going back. There wasn’t another harvest of potatoes – of either variety – in the garden to dig. I grabbed a spatula. I began to scrape the yam mixture off the counters and the cleaner parts of the floor, after all, my housekeeper had just been here yesterday, how dirty could it possibly be? I put a pie tin under the largest glop on the ceiling, hoping it would just fall down of its own accord. Realizing, of course, – I’m not completely irresponsible--that there might be a slight bit of dust or a hair or something like that in what I was scrapping up, it occurred to me to strain it. I set up the mixing bowl in the sink with the chinois and began to collect the various puddles of yam therein. There was going to be a massive clean up issue later, but that would have to wait – and, yes I did realize the yam mixture was going to dry and harden into an impervious coating that would probably stick better than paint. Yes, quite possibly, I was going to have to try to pass my kitchen walls off as a new faux painting style. The chinois would have fine enough holes to separate any errant grit in the sweet potatoes and I could get on with the potatoes – that is to say the IRISH potatoes. All twenty five well-boiled pounds of them.

The timer had gone off on the potatoes at some point in the yam/mixer adventure. Looking at 25 pounds of boiled white potatoes was more difficult than trying to stare down the judge at my last traffic conviction.

Next time, I thought, I’m signing on for the cranberry sauce or the rolls. Looking at those potatoes, I felt even the turkey must be a better assignment. But, I’m a gamer, which is probably a synonym for ‘slow’ – or as my baseball coach in high school often remarked about my natural baseball talent, “Son, you may not be very good, but you sure are slow…” and made it sound like a compliment, so I rolled up my sleeves.

Here again, Martha’s directions, though quite clear, obviously couldn’t have been written to cover the nuances of my situation. I’m here in the trenches, Ms. Stewart, and not only is my kitchen 14 thousand times smaller than yours, I’ve quadrupled your recipe to account for an army of hungry Irish descendents on a day dedicated, for God’s sakes, to eating more in one meal than a person consumes in the entire summer of the same year. I know for a fact that some obsessive people start diets in August to lose the weight they know they will unavoidably gain in Thanksgiving season.

You recall, probably better than I could at this point, that the recipe had to be altered. And, after my faux pas with the sweet potatoes, which were doing nicely going through the straining process on their own, I was determined to get these alterations right. The problem now apparent was that 25 pounds of boiled potatoes wouldn’t fit into my mixer. So, the recipe had to be divided, probably into thirds, to be able to fit. I decided right off that I was better with four’s than three’s, so I split the recipe into fourths. Fourths work best with cups, however, thirds work best with tablespoons. However, I solved all that quite some time ago by using weight measurements. I put a teaspoon of salt in my hand and carefully considered how much it weighed. Then I added another teaspoon of salt and took note of that. And, after feeling the weight of three teaspoons of salt, which made a tablespoon, I knew then how much weight to deduct, approximately to get fourths out of whatever instructions I might have to follow. In fact, every once in a while, it’s good to refresh that sort of genetic memory – just don’t do it with someone else in the room – if they look at you too wide eyed, it can screw up your kinetic aesthetics.

Potatoes into the mixer. Butter. Much to my disappointment, I had used all the butter I hadn’t taken out of the freezer for the yam episode. I guessed it was just moments like this for which microwaves were invented. Mine is an older one, doesn’t work too well, so I put it on high, and knowing that I’d need several whole packages of butter, I threw the first one in and cranked it up for four minutes. Just wanted to soften it up a bit…

Next on the list was – whoa, Nellie, cream cheese? Who was this Martha woman thinking she was fooling? I honestly didn’t remember seeing “cream cheese” in the instructions when I started and I honestly didn’t see how cream cheese could possibly enhance a potato – with butter, no less. But right there, having fought the yams to a standstill, and having made all these executive types of decisions all day long, I was coming close to the end of my tether. Damn Martha and her cream cheese – after all, the next line was “Crème Fraîche” and what the hell was that anyway? Some sort of French brandy? The recipe called for a quarter pound of butter – which had to be multiplied out by four, how many pounds of butter does that become?, because she was using only 2½ pounds of spuds and I was using 25… and then there’s this 8 ounces of cream cheese followed by a quarter cup of this Crème Fraîche stuff.

I don’t think of myself as anything more than a simple man, with simple tastes and simple desires and I like everything kind of straight forward. This recipe business had begun to weigh on me and as I slumped in the corner of my kitchen wondering what the hell I needed to really – I mean, REALLY – do here, I came down hard on the side of, of, well, I don’t know really which side it was, but I made a decision. Damn the directions: Full speed ahead! I think Admiral Poindexter said that or something very much like that. I closed the recipe book and took into the living room – I didn’t want Martha to see what was going to happen next. Not that I was sure exactly what was going to happen next, but I was absolutely certain that I didn’t want Martha to see it.

First of all, one has to think, what was the result I was trying to achieve? Mashed potatoes. Had anyone in my family ever used Crame Franch? I think not; I doubt any one could have picked it out from a plate of other berries. What had Mom used? Mom used milk. We came from a proud, if somewhat odiferous, heritage of dairy farmers and nothing beats milk like real milk. And so, I was using milk. I could feel Grandpa in heaven looking up from the milking stool, smiling.

Now about the cream cheese: In potatoes? Give me a break! I bet Martha’d dress up the Green Bay Packers in tutus just to make life a little harder than it needed to be. Actually, now that I think about it, I might truly pay to see that. But no cream cheese in my spuds. No sir. Obviously, though, when she had put the cream cheese in, Martha had expected that consistency to be there when the potatoes were mashed. I had to allow for that. What to do? Easy! Add more butter and I jumped to the freezer to get the next package. The bell had just gone off on the microwave and before I opened the door I noticed a somewhat obvious dripping of what looked like butter from the front of the microwave. This was cause to pause. If I was using butter to replace the cream cheese. lets see, 8 ounces is half a pound, which meant 2½ more pounds of butter than the original however many, I was going to need every stick of butter in the house to squeeze by. After all, I had used more butter with the yams than I had planned. The butter dripped down the front of the counter, and I instinctively got a paper towel to wipe it up, but suddenly, there this word again, inspiration struck and I grabbed the sponge.

Worried that the butter might be too hot, I was standing on one foot while trying to fend off Nick, who can smell butter coming his way as good as most dogs can smell a steak dinner and trying to rinse out the sponge. I needed this sponge without any trace of soap and after a few hard squeezes, I figured I had it. Starting with the counter, I mopped up all the butter that sponge would hold and squeezed it free into the mixing bowl. I did this on the front of the cabinets until I had it enough under control to insure Nick wouldn’t get scalded by hot butter, and as I continued to de-butterify my counter top, I began to contemplate the yellow butter pooling in among the potatoes. How many cups was this? Was there going to be anyway to tell? Finally, I had salvaged enough of the butter, to venture at actually opening the microwave door. I thought very hard about holding the microwave over the mixer as I opened the door, but finally decided a saucer would handle the butter.

It didn’t. Nick jumped back as the rolling wave of butter splashed down the cabinet towards him. This time, however, much more astutely, he only pulled back far enough to watch events unfold. He looked, I thought, as though he was pulling on a lobster-eating bib. My sponge went furiously after every drop of butter I could get before finally having to succumb to the inevitable and let Nick have his way.

I arrived at Thanksgiving dinner – my sister allowed how they were a little worried because I was so late. I brought my mashed potatoes, whipped up nice and fluffy, a little yellow looking I thought, but that could have been the effects of my concussion as well, I suppose. I had put them in my camping cooler because I had no bowl large enough to hold 25 pounds of mashed potatoes, about eight pounds of butter, because with all I and they had been through, I wasn’t quite sure how much more I should have added and, as I have unmistakably proven, had tried to error on the side of more rather than less, and milk, the quantity of which totally escapes me – suffice it to say I poured milk in until the bowl of the mixer overflowed, a sure indication in my book, if there ever was one, that I had poured at least enough milk. Packing the potatoes into the camping cooler had the added bonus of having kept the potatoes warm for the drive over. I’ve always been grateful for that two-wheeled dolly that helped me get them into the house.

Yams. Right. The yams. After the straining, I had almost a cereal bowl of yam glop. “Essence of yam” I think my niece called it. But, with all that butter and brown sugar, everyone was overjoyed to put a tablespoon or so on their plate and we all sat down to as fine a Thanksgiving dinner as our family has ever enjoyed. In the month that followed, I had the opportunity to learn 32 new ways to prepare leftover mashed potatoes.

About half way through pumpkin pie though, my nephew looked at me quizzically, and asked, “What’s that in your ear – looks a lot like some sort of yam stuff?” And glory aside, I admit I can’t even look a sweet potato in the eye to this day.


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