One Thanksgiving that now seems a very long time ago, I made impossibly gluey mashed potatoes. I’m not sure why the word “impossibly” comes to mind; they were not only possible, but proven; and, given the starchiness of the potato and a cook’s tendency to over-mash when he or she wants to please, to be expected. Maybe the word comes to mind because these had even turned an unlikely milk blue, a hue appealing in a lover’s eye or robin’s egg but not in a bowl of holiday spuds.
I had forgotten about the Thanksgiving and the potatoes until I was recently reminded of them by the fine man who was my boyfriend at the time, in whose parents’ kitchen I had done the mashing. “Do you remember how angry you got?” he asked as he reminisced. “You wouldn’t come to the table.”
Hazy images came into focus: the dress I had worn; my face, flushed all day from having run a “turkey trot” through the Illinois town’s small streets that cold morning. My dramaturge of a memory has decorated the table with poinsettias. I could even see my mother in her Roman coin necklace, sipping slowly from a glass of red wine, looking around at the unexpected arrangement of people who were not her family but perhaps one day would be.
What I couldn’t remember is what went wrong with the potatoes. “Did we overboil them?” he asked me. Add too much butter? The ricer! he speculated. Perhaps it had been the fault of the potato ricer.
All potato ricers basically work. And, although you can boil potatoes for too long and end up with waterlogged lumps rather than dry-edged cubes, even the lumps make an appealing mash, simply because smashed-up potatoes and butter range not from bad to good, but from good to great. I have never experienced too much butter in mashed potatoes. (Joël Robuchon famously uses one pound of cold butter to two pounds of hot potato, a formula I’ve never tried exactly but trust is as right as the golden mean.) No, I am quite sure that my only mistake was to mix and taste and mix and taste and mix and taste and mix and mix, worrying and whisking my poor potatoes into a sticky mass, hoping to get everything right. In other words, my desire to make the best mashed potatoes resulted in inedible ones that I couldn’t bring myself to serve, and if I had just put butter in a bowl and added cooked potatoes and a pinch of salt, the Thanksgiving of the Gluey Mashed Potatoes would not have been.
I still have not learned how to keep my caring from robbing me of my kitchen sense. After making Tuscan chicken liver pâté for years with the easy half-focus that comes with practice, the day I was to make it for my brother’s wedding I added too much olive oil — imagining it so rich and good, he would know how much I loved him and his new wife — and the batch separated, broken. Nearly two decades into roasting chickens, I fail to add enough butter to my roasting pan — a technique I learned from a now-long-lost cookbook — when I am cooking for new friends, leaving the chickens I serve them always a little withered and dry. For a recent dinner at a chef’s house, when I was tasked with making guacamole — which I had made a week earlier, with a baby half-asleep in a sling across my front — I added too much lime, then too much salt, then too much cilantro, and then I froze, wondering whether I had time to find more avocados. (I remain able to cook very well for only us, or for the same friends I’ve fed dozens of times, to whom I would as happily serve toast as souffle.)
I have no wisdom to pass on about how to stop doing this, how to access the common sense that is available the other days of the year but deserts you on Thanksgiving, when you cannot recall the culinary or even philosophical truths that come so easily on other days.
But I have learned three lessons that provide some escape from the human samsara of making bad potatoes precisely when all hope (and self-esteem) is pinned to making good ones.
The first is perhaps the most obvious, known by all of us but ignored by just as many. It is that standards rise along with expectations. The light blue potatoes were probably not as bad as I thought. The pâté, even broken, tasted good. The guacamole, with no added avocados, disappeared from the buffet table, as guacamole always does. No one would have suffered, all those years ago, if I had offered my potato-glue without ado. And someone might have liked it regardless. I regularly eat mediocre things and have a wonderful time, and it is singularly affirming to realize that one is just as loved despite an average culinary performance.
Nor would anyone have been damaged by my renaming the potatoes something encouraging, and onward! I once served badly burned beef stew for a week in a restaurant because I couldn’t afford not to and received frequent compliments on my “smoked beef stew.” Provincial French aligot has its makers beat potatoes into just the glueyness that caused my poise to collapse. I didn’t know of the dish’s existence at the time, but if I had, I would have added a pound of grated cheese, whisked it stickily in and called my potatoes aligot. But now I know. As I know of Persian rice that is intentionally burned on the bottom, turkeys that are intentionally “smoky,” chowders left intentionally thin (or intentionally thick enough to stand a stake in), cakes intentionally left with their middles undercooked, and a whole number of other desserts, such as Eton mess, served broken on purpose. Although I haven’t learned to avoid mistakes of worry, I have learned to turn countless burned dishes into “blackened” ones, loose toast toppings into “soup,” undercooked fish into “escabeche” and the like, with no one the wiser and, anyway, no one minding eating an improvised dish made to turn a dark moment bright.
The third lesson is the hardest because it is conceptual. I find myself not at all embarrassed to be reminded that I made bad potatoes, but ashamed that I made such a scene over having mucked up some potatoes and butter. I’m sure there was also stuffing, and probably a sweet potato flan or puff or pudding. Mashed potatoes or none, the very reason everyone was sitting around my imagined poinsettias was to be together, all at the table for a time, the only true peccadillo being withholding one’s company. I might have gracefully left my bad potatoes in the kitchen and sat down, reporting to people who truly would not have minded that I had made terrible ones, and asking them to tell me about themselves, or telling them a bit about myself, surely precisely the nourishment for which we had gathered.
It is telling that I had forgotten the ordeal entirely. It is telling that what I remember is that I felt lovely in my dark blue dress with a man I loved and felt lucky among a family that was mine and a family I might join, that there was enough wine, that the light was good.
I can happily report that my cooking failures persist — last spring there was the Engagement Dinner of the Inedible Scallop-Mousse Stuffed Sole — but that I have never again let them get in the way of dinner. Oh, perhaps that is a fourth lesson, and one that the very existence of Thanksgiving helps one apply. When the mousse-stuffed sole proved too spongy and strange to bear, I cleared all plates and filled the kitchen table with glass containers full of the week’s leftovers. I opened more wine and handed around spoons and made a lot of toast and encouraged the happy couple whose union we were celebrating to dig in. It makes sense never to exclude other dishes you’ve cooked, perhaps in sounder mind and body, and to always keep a particularly fine bottle of wine at hand.
Adler is author of “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace” (Scriber, 2012).