PHYLLIS Diller used to joke about how her first husband, Fang, poked fun at her cooking. When guests were seated around the dinner table, Fang, serving the mashed potatoes and gravy, would turn to each guest with a benign smile and ask, ``One lump or two?'' Although a wee lump of potato in an otherwise fluffy dish of spuds is not going to divide friends or family into Hatfields and McCoys, still, lumpy whipped potatoes are no joke.
The chicken way out, of course, is to pick up a package of instant mashed potato mix -- with dried parsley flakes or plain -- when no one's looking. But really, would you dare? An insipid blob of that tasteless, watery stuff, with its slightly gray overtones, has no place on the dining table -- especially for the holidays. To ladle a spoonful of thick, smooth, delicious, homemade turkey-pan gravy onto a mound of that stuff is like serving boiled lobster with melted lard rather than drawn butter.
There are several schools of thought when it comes to making perfect mashed or whipped potatoes. And it may well be that mashed potatoes, like beauty itself, is in the eyes of the beholder.
Many cooks like to start with the round, white ``chef's'' or all-purpose potatoes. Russet (or baking) potatoes are the favorite of others, though they tend to be somewhat drier and may need additional butter or liquid.
Some people insist on using a ricer to break up potatoes. Others use a hand potato masher in an up-and-down motion and a good amount of elbow grease. There are those who use an electric mixer or food processor, though some admit that the result will be gummy rather than fluffy. Indeed, potatoes overworked in a processor will cause the starch to break down, and the potatoes will be glutinous and sticky.
If you do use a processor, don't tell Bert Greene, food columnist, writer, and author of several cookbooks.
``Don't get potatoes near a food processor!'' he says. ``People think a food processor will do everything, including brush your teeth. It won't. I'm trying to bring back the old-fashioned potato ricer. Nothing does mashed potatoes better. They come out in long, silky, airy strands.''
Maybe mashed potatoes is the wrong term. ``Actually,'' says Mr. Greene, ``you shouldn't mash potatoes down. That will take the air out, and you really want them fluffy. Put them through a ricer, add your hot liquid, and fluff them with a fork, like you do rice.''
So should you add milk? Or cream? Or just butter? Or both? It's more a matter of taste. Just be sure that whatever liquid you use is hot. After that, the secret is to beat them well enough to smooth them out, incorporate air, and serve them piping hot. In a pinch, mashed potatoes may be kept for a short time in a covered double boiler or equivalent over hot water.
For variety, you may want to add a few grates of nutmeg, a pinch of cayenne pepper, a dash or Worcestershire Sauce, or even a bit of grated cheese to a basic recipe.
For added flavor, try boiling potatoes with a small onion, a bay leaf or two, or a clove of garlic -- all of which, of course, must be removed after boiling and before potatoes are whipped.
And while we're on the subject of lumps, a few words about lump-free gravy.
Carol Hook, instructor and director of admissions at Creative Cuisine Cooking School in Cambridge, Mass., says this: ``Lumpy gravy is usually the product of the thickening agent -- usually flour -- added in the wrong manner. A roux should first be made incorporating a few spoonsful of flour with a hot liquid -- this may be water, stock, or some of the gravy itself -- before being mixed into the gravy. If you are using flour as a thickener, continue simmering the gravy for a few minutes to remove the bitter taste of the raw flour. Basic Mashed Potatoes 2 pounds mature potatoes (about 4 medium-sized baking or 6 medium-sized all-purpose) 3 or 4 tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon white pepper 1/3 cup hot milk or cream
Peel and cut up potatoes and drop them in cold water to cover. Boil uncovered until tender. Drain thoroughly. Add butter, salt, and pepper and mix throughly. Add hot milk or cream all at once and whip until smooth. Serve immediately.