Potatoes are naturally low in fat, high in potassium, and contain fiber, vitamins, and nutrients. Thus, they are a great staple of the human diet. Though they are healthy, some of the ways in which we prepare them are less healthy. While traditional mashed potatoes are made with butter, milk or cream, and salt, there are many healthier ways to make them, including keeping the skins on, substituting Greek yogurt for the milk or olive oil for the butter, and adding garlic versus salt for flavor. Of course, traditionalists will argue that there is nothing better than the original written recipe for mashed potatoes. For fun, let’s delve into some food history!
Say, what? A ban on potatoes?
Mashed potatoes are an extremely popular side dish that generally accompanies meat and vegetables. It often makes an appearance on Thanksgiving Day tables around America. However, long ago, they haven’t always considered people food. In mid-18th century France, potatoes were mainly used as feed for livestock. The French also mistakenly believed that potatoes could cause leprosy in humans; thus, they passed a law against them in 1748. However, French army pharmacists, Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, captured by Prussian soldiers and forced to live on the vegetable, began to share all the ways potatoes could be served. This included an early form of mashed potatoes. Thankfully, by 1772, France lifted its potato ban.
Did potatoes originate in Ireland?
Though Ireland gets a lot of credit for their use of potatoes, they did not domesticate them. Rather, potatoes most likely originated in the Andes mountains of Peru and northwest Bolivia, dating as far back as 8000 BCE per Mental Floss. The original taste of the potato was said to be bitter, and in fact, contained some toxins. However, as selective breeding and time would have it, most potato varieties nowadays are considered safe to eat today. The Irish ultimately embraced potatoes, and colcannon remains a staple dish to this date. This traditional Irish side dish contains mashed potatoes with cabbage (or Kale) and was first referenced in Irish history in a 1735 diary entry of William Bulkely. According to Smithsonian Magazine, he was a traveler from Wales who had the dish on Halloween night in Dublin. A century later, the Irish Potato Famine took hold in 1845, when a fungus-like organism called Phytophthora Infestans spread through Ireland, ruined potato crops, and led to widespread hunger. Better development of crops would eventually make potatoes much more resilient to crop failure.
How did mashed potatoes become a popular side dish?
Hannah Glasse, an English author who wrote an 18th-Century recipe cookbook entitled The Art of Cookery, shares an early mashed potato recipe that uses boiled potatoes, milk, butter, and salt. Her instructions call for boiling them first, peeling them second before mashing them well and adding the other ingredients. One tale says that Glasse was enamored by a potato farmer who was disinterested in her. She became fed up with him and uprooted one of his plants. Due to her frustration, she cooked and smashed the potatoes, thereby creating the recipe. Though likely fabricated, it makes for a great story! It has also been suggested that her recipes might have been copied. Historically, however, Glasse’s recipes are greatly admired for being useful, plain, easy, and enjoyable, just like mashed potatoes. In 1887, a “potato-masher and fruit-crusher” device was invented by Jacob Fitzgerald and William H. Silver, which is now known as a potato ricer to help make smoother mashed potatoes. This elevates mashed potatoes to a new level. The invention of dehydrated potato flakes, patented in the UK in 1942 by Theodore Rendle, would give way to the development and marketing of spuds that were well suited for use during WWII and beyond. Of course, no dehydrated flakes can stand up to the fresh taste of the creamy hot, and buttery mashed potatoes that we know and love today. (See AMAC’s recipe for Marge B’s creamy traditional mashed potatoes.)