The mystery of the mashed potatoes

Comfort food, anyone? Potatoes were ours. We had them baked, hashed, French-fried - and starring in a family mystery.

On special occasions, Mom mashed potatoes. And at every Sunday dinner, Thanksgiving feast, or Christmas spread, Dad took a big bite. He chewed contemplatively. Mom raised an eyebrow at him. Dad's answer to her unspoken question was: "Oh, they're good - great. Delicious! But...." (our hearts sank) "Well, they're just not quite the way my mother made them."

Dad's sigh would be echoed by Mom's. We'd continue eating, some of us puzzling over the potato problem.

Now, Mom mashed the heck out of the potatoes. In fact, she whipped them to creamy lightness with her electric mixer and lots of butter, milk, salt, and pepper. With her savory gravy - well, I could've eaten just that, nothing more, and known it was a celebration.

But at every feast, we endured the mild mashed potato disappointment at the head of the table. Was Dad a picky eater? Hardly. This was a man who concocted incredible ("inedible," we all said) conglomerations of canned ravioli mixed with dill pickle juice and leftover stew/soup/casserole for his lunch. What's more, Dad adored Mom's cooking. He frequently said, "All day long I look forward to dinner."

"I just don't get it," Mom would say to me after one of Dad's potato proclamations. "I've added extra butter, used less butter ... tried more salt and less salt. Mashed potatoes are so basic. What could your grandmother have done with them that I haven't?"

We all knew cooking was never Grandma's talent. She prided herself on never having turned on her oven. She once invited me over for a special lunch, just the two of us. Grandma's lunch menu for the day had been:

• Entrée of canned pears, straight from the can.

• Tap water as a beverage, all you can drink.

We were pretty sure Grandma had had no amazing gourmet tricks up her (apronless) sleeve.

Finally, one Thanksgiving the mystery of the mashed potatoes was solved. We had company. The meal preparation hit some snags, culminating in a suddenly - ta da! - done turkey, way sooner than expected. We scrambled to assemble the other dishes. With the turkey, gravy, green beans, rolls, sweet potatoes, stuffing, and cranberries awaiting at the table - along with ravening guests and family members - Mom attacked the huge bowlful of potatoes. The electric mixer whirred, and almost immediately stopped, dead and unrevivable.

Mom delivered the potato bowl to the table. "I hope they're truly mashed," she said apologetically.

As we soon discovered, they weren't. Instead they were loaded with solid potato lumps.

"I'm sorry about the potatoes," Mom said. "Oh, dear."

"Sorry?!" Dad helped himself to a mashed potato Mt. Everest. "What do you mean? They're perfect! Why, these are exactly the way my mother made them."

It may have been the first and last time that "the electric mixer breaking" made it onto the end of the traditional round-table of "I'm grateful this Thanksgiving for...." But I continue to be thankful for family memories that never fail to make me smile.

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