Other than a few odd moments of confrontation--Fred and Ginger bickering over pronunciation, Dan Quayle "correcting" a grade school kid's spelling--the potato (sorry, Dan) enjoyed a relatively placid existence over the years. For example, through war and protest, boom and bust, the classic mashed potato recipe remained a dinner staple, an unswerving reminder of Mom and the good old days.
Few Dallas-area restaurants serve traditional mashed potatoes anymore. Instead, they serve up dollops of garlic mashed potatoes, bacon and cheddar mashed potatoes, rosemary mashed potatoes, smashed potatoes, mashed potatoes with skin, even goat-cheese mashed potatoes. Hence this week's Burning Question.
Actually, this week's Burning Question started as a serious inquiry into the changing cultural fabric of Texas wrought by the infusion of northern transplants and globalization. The classic mashed potato recipe involves milk, salt, pepper, butter and a batch of plain old white potatoes. Simple. No roasted garlic, no extra virgin olive oil, and definitely no smoked gouda and chives. Old-time Texans, for instance, would have hog-tied anyone who tried to mix goat cheese or rosemary into their mashed potatoes. The Burning Question crew began researching the question "What are you people, a bunch of wusses?" until the editors got wind of the project, wiped the saffron-infused mashed potatoes from their chins with a lace napkin and ordered us to pursue Option No. 2.
So, why can't we get plain old mashed potatoes anymore?
"Because we're bored, plain and simple," explains Marc Cassel, executive chef of The Green Room. Cassel whips up a variety of flavored mashed potatoes, including blue cheese. "You have to distinguish yourself from Denny's," adds Mercury's Zack Sekouri. His restaurant creates truffle mashed potatoes and even a potato mousse. "It gets a little complicated once you get into elegant dining."
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Establishments dedicated to old-fashioned cooking--like Black-eyed Pea or Good Eats--add skin to their mashed potatoes. "You might as well use the whole potato," says Neil Taylor, manager of Good Eats in Addison. His restaurant does not, typically, add anything like garlic or saffron to their mixing bowls. "This is Good Eats, not Fancy Eats," Taylor explains. "People love the basics."
People may love the basics, but they ask for a little taste. Food magazines devote pages describing the flavors and qualities of different potatoes--russets, Yukon golds, round reds, etc. Professor Alfred Bushway at the University of Maine explores the science of cooking potatoes. He can explain how butter or half-and-half interacts with starch molecules during the mashing process, how exposed surface area affects flavor during the boiling process, and other important bits of potato science. We've come too far, it seems, to return to the days of plain old mashed potatoes, without skin.
"We can make neutral mashed potatoes," assures Cassel. "We do possess that capability."
But will anyone eat old-fashioned, bland potatoes? Even Taylor at Good Eats can't hold out against the forces of change. "If they want garlic in their mashed potatoes, I'll put garlic in them," he admits. "If they want the skin off, well, they can go to Popeyes."