Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Great Mashed Potato Fiasco

Le cuisinier et le chat
Théodule Ribot
At one time I fancied that I could cook.

I had a cookbook (well, it was the property of The Missus Herself but, rather bemused by the whole thing, she allowed me to use it), I had the tools and I had a kitchen.

With all that, what could possibly go wrong? Just follow the instructions.

It was during my non-traditional undergraduate college days. Non-traditional because when I started my sophomore year in 1983, it had been 11 years since my freshman year.

Along the way I had picked up a wife, two kids and a career in the Air Force.

With that being said...*

It was our first Thanksgiving in our new apartment, in our new location. We had yet to do a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner. The Missus Herself was still a neophyte at American cuisine and was nervous about tackling that meal. So, based on what I told you above, I endeavored to prepare the meal myself.

First things first, I had seen the following at my local grocery store (behind which, once removed, was our apartment building).

Pre-cooked, no bones, no carcass, no muss, no fuss. Just reheat, slice and serve.

So that would cover the turkey, the most difficult part of the feast. What to do for the rest?

Stuffing, gotta have stuffing. While at the store I checked out the Stove Top stuffing mixes. Read the box, looks easy-peasy. So I bought two boxes.

Hhmm, ah yes! Cranberry sauce! That comes in cans, I can open a can without causing serious injury to myself or others. I can do this!

But there has to be more...

Mashed potatoes. How hard can those be? I can so do this.

The first year, it came off without a hitch. The Naviguesser and The Nuke were both impressed. (Which means neither of them got sick or exhibited any ill effects from the meal.) The Missus Herself grudgingly accepted that I could, in a pinch, follow a recipe and not kill anybody produce an edible and somewhat tasty repast. (Note here that The WSO was not even a gleam in my eye as of that time.)

The next year, with the new wee thing one day to be known as The WSO now gracing the premises, but far too young to eat solid food, I did Thanksgiving again. Only this time, I got adventurous. Can you say "pumpkin bread"?

I knew you could.

Betty Crocker provided the instructions, the children provided morale support ("Mom, does Dad know what he's doing?") and with the local King Soopers providing all of the key ingredients, I actually made pumpkin bread.

Not from a mix.

Not from scratch (not having grown my own wheat and not having ground same).

But from flour and butter and sugar and nuts and raisins and, and...

It was very exciting for me. I decided there and then, that someday I would become a famous pastry chef!

I know, I know, pumpkin bread is not a pastry. More of a cake, I guess. Even though it's called "bread," it's more of a cake-like substance. Humor me, who (other than Peter Falk in Castle Keep) wants to be a baker someday?

Okay, lots of people I would guess. People like bread. Especially home made bread. Bakers know how to do that. One thing I miss about Germany is the local bakery, sure we have them around here, usually Portuguese, and Portuguese sweet bread is to die for but...

Pão doce WuCamera Photo CC

Sorry, digression, I know. But our neighbor brought us some of that on Monday. Oh my word, that stuff is AWESOME. (Sorry, I have to wipe some drool off my keyboard.)


The pumpkin bread came out really well. Most delicious and it has become a family tradition since 1984 (or 1985, I forget, it was a looooonnnnngggg time ago).

The meal was excellent. I was really full of myself and...

What's that? What other days of the year did I cook? Me?

Just Thanksgiving though I did branch out and do Christmas as well. I was a specialist. Though to be honest I did, from time to time, whip up cookies or brownies as the mood struck me. (Always from a mix mind you. Cookies and brownies are way too important to be left to the likes of my not-so-tender ministrations in the kitchen. I just know I would screw them up!)

So, it's my senior year, and I'm feeling pretty cocky going into the Thanksgiving season. It's almost like I'm on this winning streak, nothing can stop me now. I'm a kitchen master. No recipe too complex, no culinary delight beyond my capabilities.

Can you see what was about to happen?

Yup, I got over-confident. Way too cocky and (dare I say?) arrogant.

The preparation started out as it always did but that year, there was a difference.

You see, The WSO was now three. She had developed a personality which all found cute and endearing. But, she also was a bit of an attention hog (sorry honey, but there it is).

So rather than attend to my duties in the kitchen, I may have been paying far too much attention to the youngest of our clan. There may have been a burning odor coming from the stove. My carefully orchestrated and meticulously planned repast was about to be undone.

Mashed potatoes are pretty easy to make.

Peel the 'taters, wash 'em up, throw 'em in a pot o' water and bring to a medium boil. When they're tender, you drain 'em.

Then I like to mix it a bit o' milk then one smashes the hell out of mashes them. (It's easy to get carried away.)

I prefer an Irish potato masher, as opposed to a German potato masher. The cognoscenti will know why.


German Potato Masher (Public Domain)

Now I had just checked the 'taters, they were tender and ready to be mashed. So I added the milk and began to mash them, keeping them over a low heat by the way. Like I had always done.

Now somewhere in this process The WSO (of course, she will deny all knowledge of this and her siblings support her for the comedic effect of harassing Your Humble Scribe) began to make a fuss, demand something, make lots of noise or some other three-year old type behavior. I forget the exact circumstances. The trauma of that day haunts me still...

So I turned to the littlest one of the tribe to scream-at-her-to-please-be-bloody-quiet-can't-you-see-I'm-busy-in-the-freaking-kitchen-making-Thanksgiving-bloody-dinner ascertain what was troubling her, incorrigible-little-monster sweet darling thing that she was (and is).

Whilst in the midst of performing my parental duties (The Missus Herself being unavailable, she might have been doing laundry) I neglected to check the mashed potatoes.

Given enough time, even over a low heat, the moisture in those potatoes was bound to boil off, leaving nothing between the heat source and those lovely mashed potatoes but a thin skin of metal actually designed to transfer heat evenly to the contents of the pot.

Yes, Dear Reader, the 'taters were burned. Not badly mind you, just a bit of crispiness and brownish coloring to the lowest layer of the potatoes. It would have been alright had not the love of my life come into the room, smelled something amiss and immediately proclaimed...

"The mashed potatoes are burned. You burned them. How could you?
Thanksgiving is ruined. Ruined I tell you!"

There was much gnashing of teeth, wailing and rending of garments that day, I can tell you. Well, except for The Nuke, she found (and still finds) the entire incident to be très amusant.

To this day, when all could have possibly been forgotten or overlooked by now, the traditional greeting in our household, and the homes of our children, has been and (I believe) will always be...

"Hey, remember that Thanksgiving when Dad burned the mashed potatoes? Hahahahaha!"

Much to my chagrin.

Truth be told, I haven't cooked since that day.

Not one potato.

Not one breast of turkey.

Not one box of Stove Top.

The entire thing left me a broken man.

Broken I tell you.

Now my contribution to the holiday meals is limited to opening the cans of Ocean Spray and cleaning the dishes afterwards.

Damn, I could have been Emeril Lagasse.

Emeril Lagasse book signing, Ft Lewis
(US Army Photo - Spc. Leah R. Burton)


  1. I'm a decent ranch food cook. My learning motivation was what my parents called, "The Belly Flapping Principal".

    1. Heh, I get that.)

      I used to cook (after a fashion) when I was single. (It was that or starve - I didn't starve.)

      I've just grown out of the habit.

  2. Great story. Too common. Distraction is the bane of all great cooks, once the oven is turned on. My daughter-in-law once let a year old black lab in the kitchen door just as I was trying to plate turkey for eleven on a Thanksgiving afternoon. I yelled at her (with Christian love). She never forgot, I think. She didn't stay for dinner, anyway.

    1. Ooh, not good, not good at all.

      Black labs, plating turkey, not an optimum combination.

      Daughter-in-laws, you have to love them. (I think that's a requirement in most states...)

  3. I learned to cook as a kid from my Mom. As photos of my self would show, am pretty good at it, so have been the primary cook for quite a while. That having been said, I have been known to serve up a "slaved all day" meal, take a bite, gather up the dishes and dial Domino's. No shame in that. But the fact that the family NEVER lets you live that down.........

    1. It gets painful. Some scars never go away.

      I'm sure the kids will guffaw and point fingers when they read this. Which they will, I'm sure.

  4. Almost every man thinks he can BBQ. I must have burned 1000 pieces of chicken and over or undercooked $1000 worth of meats learning to grill. I never admitted during all these failures that I didn't know what I was doing. After about 35 years I bought a book and then with cable, started to watch cooking shows. I am now a decent grill master, but only if grilling for a small group. Grilling different meats for large crowds gets dicey and takes a special talent.

    I have also learned to never offer advise to another man who is grilling on his turf. Better to just eat charred steak.

    1. When the grill comes out, so does the beer.

      The womenfolk get concerned to see me drinkin' and grillin'. Usually one of the daughters (typically The Nuke) will come out to "supervise" and then eventually take over as "it's obvious you don't know what you're doing Dad!" I pass the utensils and sit back and quaff my ale.

      Of course, having revealed that, I have no idea what will happen the next time the grill comes out.

  5. There was a time when I thought I could make....chocolate chip cookies. The recipe seemed simple and Mrs Fields charged a lot for bad could it be? Well, I baked a few dozen, put them in a large Tupperware bowl nd they all fused together. It was 1 big mass.

    Did I mention that I spent more on th ingredients than I could have spent buying a bag of Mrs Fields?

  6. You must, as Julia said, have the courage of your conviction. Own the process. By cultivating an air of supreme confidence, you will allow your guests to convince themselves of your superior skill and expertise. You didn’t burn the potatoes, you prepared purée de pommes avec friands à la brule. They’d happily pay $300 a plate for similar fare at la mise en place de la grenouille bien prétentieux.

    1. That '87 commercial takes me back to a happy place, btw. Thanks!

    2. I actually remember watching that commercial BITD.

      Louis Rich Breast of Turkey was easy to prepare and tasty.

      Perhaps I shall resurrect my cooking career!

    3. Love the Julia clip. She taught me how to cook with panache and it has worked. Style over substance, until the first taste. Then it's "that's not the way gramma made it!"

    4. Sigh, I've never had any style. I'm as subtle as Russian artillery.

  7. I may have prepared a meal or two over time.
    At one point I was the designated potato masher in the family, even though I don't particularly care for mashed potatoes.
    I do grill and barbecue a lot ...and yes, there is a difference.
    Baking is not among any of my specialties, though I do bake corn bread (from a box) and ginger snaps (from scratch).

    One of the things I have found that is truly important is you have to know how to prepare whatever you grill or barbecue using the kitchen range, too.

    1. That last bit is oh so true.

      Especially if the grill runs out of gas and all the stores are now closed.

      Or suddenly a torrential downpour curtails outdoor activities.

      I am most impressed at your ability to make ginger snaps from scratch.

      You are a man of many talents Skip!

  8. Could be worse, Sarge. Put the missus in the body and fender shop over the weekend, when I ventured into crockpot cooking. She emerged unscathed, other than the loss of her gallbladder - which had been playing for the other team for some time now. I figured the somewhat fatty short ribs would emerge from the pot, minus their well marbled fat layers ( they did), however I didn't think she would consider the cooking liquid to be soup. I'm tossing the crock pot.

    1. Ah, so your Missus has joined the "no gallbladder" club. I too am a member. I came through it fairly unscathed, though the third day after the surgery I was convinced that I was dying. Some pretty (I thought) intense pain. My surgeon told me that was natural and I should "man up" and quit crying. (Surgeon is German. Not of German-descent but actually born and raised in Deutschland. Zu befehl Herr Chirurg!

      Hhmm, soup? While tossing the crock pot seems extreme, I understand completely.

      Prayers and best wishes to your Missus for a speedy recovery.

  9. They also serve who salivate and wait. For decades I roasted the beef and had the minor over with his SO for all holiday meals. I left the potato and veg to them. I cooked roast beef.

    I started out wondering if you cooked a roast beef on broil or bake. I opted for broil until I couldn't stand it anymore and shifted to bake. It did give the crackling a most awesome taste. The beef was always rubbed down in garlic salt first.....not a total idiot......sort of.

  10. The BadgerMom would have huge Early Thanksgivings for the extended family, up to 50 people in attendance, with this here Badger making 5 gallon batches of mashed taters. Alas, I have also been to Thanksgivings where I in my Crown Vic, and 3-4 Pierces were uninvited, but very welcome guests.

    1. Deep fried turkey that got out of hand, you know

    2. One more thing - deep fried turkey, my son-in-law swears by it.

      But there are a lot of YouTube videos of "when things go wrong" regarding the whole deep fried turkey thing.

    3. Last fall my dad was looking into "countertop turkey fryers" on offer at the local junior wally-world (whatever it's called this week. shopko? pamida? bustedstuff?) and opined that one would be perfect for the upcoming holiday. Mom opined that his musings might suggest incompetence if the kids ever decided to have him forcibly institutionalized. Last we heard about it.

    4. Sound advice from your Mom. (I need to be more careful around the progeny!)


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