Countdown to Thanksgiving, Day 8: Potatoes – Lumps or No Lumps?

Traveling down the bumpy (er, lumpy) road of whipping up perfect mashed potatoes.

To catch up on Megan Swoyer's first seven steps of the “turkey day” planning process, read the full series.

“Megan said she’s doing the potatoes.”

That’s what I heard upon entering my parents’ house one Thanksgiving a couple decades ago.

There was a whirlwind of activity in the kitchen as I carried in a few sticks of butter and a bagful of potatoes, plopping them on the counter.

“I’m here, no fear!” I told my mom and siblings as I took off my coat and got right to the task of potato peeling.

No one paid much attention to me, until … I pulled out my huge, beat-up Betty Crocker Cookbook. 

“What’s that for?” Mom asked.

“I know, weird," I said. "But, I want to be sure I do them right.”

“Do what right? The mashed potatoes?” she asked. The kitchen went silent.


Everyone laughed. Who needs a recipe to make mashed potatoes?

I do. They quickly forgot how the year before my potatoes turned to gummy glue. We ended up having to resort to … the Godforsaken BOX. Flakes! Fake!

I had whipped mine too long, fearing there’d be lumps. The concoction turned into a goopy mess; the beaters actually went into early retirement as they slowly slogged through the pasty glop.

“How can anybody blow mashed potatoes?” I wondered. “And how can anyone celebrate Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes?”

I thought about starting over, but there were only two potatoes left. My smart mom, thankfully, had in the cupboard a box of instant mashed potatoes — ready in four minutes.

We didn’t tell anyone they weren’t homemade and Mom and I winked at each other as we watched people gobble them up. 

Mom still teases me today about bringing the mashed potatoes recipe – but I'm not taking chances.

Like it – or lump it

So, about those lumps. I’ve discovered since then that many folks actually prefer them to an ultra-smooth consistency. No need to whip those spuds into oblivion, friends tell me.

My friend Anne Hoef of Troy insists on lumps.

“In the lumps-versus-no-lumps debate, I love homemade mashed potatoes with lumps,” she declared. “When the giant bowl of lumpy potatoes is served, I put it in front of me and say, ‘Thank you, now where is everyone else’s?’ ”  

Catering to potato purists

Beyond the lumps dispute, some families are mashed potato purists (that would be ours), while others are open to a variety of ingredients.

Chef Dawn Bause, who teaches cooking classes at in Birmingham and leads food-discovery trips throughout the world, gets out Yukon gold potatoes, chicken stock (not milk!), butter, whipped cream cheese, white pepper and Kosher salt to create her mashed masterpiece. Imagine!

My family says nothing but butter, milk and a bit of salt and pepper should ever enter the world of mashed potatoes.

And yet, haven’t we all been at a restaurant where we sense a bit of garlic or a dollop or two of sour cream in the potatoes? (Even the official site for Idaho Potatoes jazzes up a recipe with garlic and cream) Delicious! If I tried that on my family (especially my husband’s family and my teenage sons) faces would contort. Seriously.

“Mom, what did you do to the potatoes? These aren’t the usual ones,” the 16-year-old would say. (And I’d want to say, “And aren’t you just the Miss Marple!”)

And then all eyes would be on me, the clinking of forks the only sound in the room.

“I thought I’d go the Barefoot Contessa (Chef Ina Garten) route this once and try adding just a smidgeon of sour cream,” I can hear myself saying. (Really, a half-cup.)

“Noooooooooo.” More silence. They’d poke their forks into the heaps of white and attempt to say something polite but direct, like, “Nice thought, but potatoes don’t need sour cream.”

In their book, Betty’s cookbook rocks. Her recipe calls for potatoes, milk, butter, salt and pepper. Betty also has the process down — mash first, then beat in the ingredients.

She does go off on a dangerous limb, though, suggesting that cooks adorn the finished product with a sprinkle of paprika or some snipped parsley or chives. Dare I?

Sunday, Day 9: Mayo isn't the only must-have for a great turkey sandwich. 

Nancy Hanus November 19, 2011 at 01:53 PM
Mashed potatoes have been the discussion around our family table for years. My mom, everyone concedes, makes the best mashed potatoes in the world. Her secret: Melt the butter and warm the milk ahead of time, so when you add them to the potatoes, the potatoes remain hot. And cut the potato pieces up REALLY small so they all cook through. Lumps are NOT allowed at our table. What about anyone else?
Megan Swoyer November 19, 2011 at 06:14 PM
My sister-in-law, Donna, makes great mashed potatoes, too. Her secret, like your mom's secret, is to cut up the potatoes really small before boiling.


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