Mountains of mashed potatoes

Let the sky rain potatoes.

- Shakespeare, "The Merry Wives of Windsor"

If Falstaff were alive and living in Lawrence, Kan., he'd be a regular at Potato Mountain. It doesn't just rain potatoes here. It pours.

Proprietor Brent McClun serves nothing but mashed potatoes - with a lengthy menu of toppings, from meatballs and curried chicken to cheese, chili, chives, and salsa.

Mr. McClun says mashed potatoes are a fond reminder of his boyhood in Charles City, Iowa, where he loved to watch his mother and grandmother cook.

"We had mashed potatoes at every big meal," he says. "There were times I remember when I didn't want anything else."

Now, the humble spud has brought him good fortune. Following a series of failed business ventures, McClun moved to Lawrence, a lively college town of 65,000. With little money and less credit, he opened a store on Main Street selling herbs, vitamins, candles, and assorted gifts.

Almost as an afterthought, he set up a few tables with the idea of serving simple vegetarian food. One day as he watched a television program on the versatility of the lowly tuber, his boyhood memories of the delights of potatoes were rekindled.

He came up with a selection of simple, but distinctive, ways of seasoning them. Using his mother's basic recipe of hand-mashed potatoes (which leaves the occasional lump), milk, and butter, he added toppings of his own.

Potato Mountain was an immediate success. By the second day, there was a line of customers outside. A write-up in the local newspaper sent business into orbit.

Within weeks, McClun's humble start-up garnered national publicity and he was going through 800 pounds of potatoes a week.

He soon opened a second store three blocks away. Since then, he has closed the original location and consolidated his operation in one 45-seat restaurant.

McClun's dishes are named after mountains. There's Mt. Hood, fajita-style chicken with cheese, chives, and salsa. Mt. Shasta in California is snowcapped, but in Kansas, it is topped with broccoli and cheese.

McClun's favorite recipe is Mt. Everest, a traditional meal in Midwestern farm families for generations. This dish, his best seller, combines egg noodles, chicken, and gravy over mashed potatoes.

It's also a favorite of Mark Schreiber, a regular at Potato Mountain. For him, the restaurant's aroma of mashed potatoes and gravy arouses nostalgia of childhood visits to his grandparents. "Those were the finest days I ever spent on the planet," he says.

McClun has experimented with more than 100 recipes, but recently he winnowed his offerings to 10 dishes, excluding some of his more exotic toppings, like pepperoni and pizza sauce or kiwi and pineapple, although he may put them back on the menu someday.

McClun says he's considering franchising his restaurant. But for now, his plans are for small eateries in vending carts. Some of these will be different. They'll be raining carrots instead of potatoes.

MT. MCKINLEY 8 to 10 medium-size russet potatoes 1/2 stick butter 2 cups milk (approximately) Salt 8 ounces sour cream 8 ounces cream cheese 1/2 cup chopped onion Herbs and spices to taste, optional Parsley, for garnish

Boil peeled potatoes until soft when probed with a fork. Drain and mash. Add butter and, with an electric mixer, whip in enough milk until mixture is firm, not pasty or runny. Whip in sour cream and cream cheese. Add salt to taste. Mix in onion and, if desired, herbs or spices. Mound in a casserole and bake at 325 degrees F. for 45 minutes. Allow to cool for about 15 minutes before serving. Add shredded cheese to the top to make a Pike's Peak. Garnish with parsley.

Serves 4 to 6 as a main dish or 8 to 10 as a side dish.

MT. VESUVIUS 8 to 10 medium-size russet potatoes 1/2 stick butter 2 cups milk (approximately) Salt Pizza or spaghetti sauce Sliced pepperoni 2 cups shredded Cheddar/Jack cheese Parsley, for garnish

Follow directions in previous recipe for basic mashed potatoes except do not add sour cream, cream cheese, or onion. Put 1-1/2 cups mashed potatoes on a dinner plate and flatten evenly over the surface with the bottom of a spoon to form a crust. Spoon on about 3 tablespoons of pizza sauce. Add 8 slices of pepperoni and cover with shredded Cheddar/Jack cheese. Microwave until cheese is melted. Garnish with crushed parsley. Serves 4 to 6.

*Potato Mountain is located at 803 Vermont Street, Lawrence, Kan. Telephone: (785) 842-1997.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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