You can’t have a decent meal without meat and potatoes, my mother insisted. True to her Irish roots, both were mandatory for a balanced meal – especially the potatoes.
Going on a picnic? Lunch meat or hotdogs were the meat and potato chips or potato salad was the side dish.
Having fried chicken? Mashed potatoes were expected. Meatloaf? Mashed potatoes again. Steak? Baked potatoes came into play.
Polish sausage called for fried potatoes, which evoked Dad’s chestnut about a dimwitted cousin who told his mother, Irma, that she had served the wrong kind of potatoes. In a hurry, she had boiled them and added a little butter, which Dad called “saxophones” because to him they were as dismal as listening to a saxophone solo.
The cousin whined, “Aunt Irmie, I don’t want boiled potatoes; I want greased potatoes.”
We would laugh at the threadbare joke though we had never met the cousin.
When I edged into junior high, the school cafeteria had enlightened me on foreign fare, but when mom sneered at the large ruffled-edge lasagna noodles, the tiny can of stinky Parmesan cheese and the obligatory can of mushroom sauce she threw her hands to the ceiling. “All this work and no meat!”
One day, armed with coupons and the sale paper, Mom and I headed for the supermarket where I talked Mom into a Chef Boy-Ar-Dee lasagna kit on the condition that I did the cooking. Concocting such a dish was beyond her, and clean-up was a chore with baked-on sauce.
The lasagna was edible, but Mom would have little of it. “Give me meat and potatoes any day.”
Lunch on wash day or window cleaning day called for a pickup meal. Having matured during the Depression, she ran a waste-not, want-not kitchen that left a lot of “want” in the taste department. Meat was re-heated or made into a sandwich. Mashed potatoes re-appeared in the form of scorched potato dollops that tasted funny.
I sniffed the potatoes with odd brown flecks. This was in the days before we knew the nutritious value of potato peelings. “Is this warmed over?” I said.
“Yes, warmed over the stove.”
She laughed alone.
To this day I won’t save leftover mashed potatoes and never serve “saxophones.” Dad was right. Potatoes – particularly those that should’ve been mashed – are pretty dismal indeed.
Tamra Wilson lives in Newton, her story collection, “Dining with Robert Redford and Other Stories,” was released in 2011 by Little Creek Books.
Mom’s Mashed Potatoes
Select one potato per person. Peel potatoes to remove all skin and eyes. Boil covered until a fork can pierce the meat of the potato thoroughly. Drain. Crush with a potato masher until mush is formed. Add a dollop of butter or margarine, about 2 tablespoons milk, and salt and pepper to taste. Beat until creamy. Serve immediately.