Was it a poorly conceived plot to poison neighborhood pets? A bizarre prank? A weird guerrilla marketing stunt sponsored by the potato lobby? A cryptic omen requiring careful interpretation, like the bird signs and animal tracks studied by augurers in ancient Rome, and potentially foretelling stranger times to come?

All of these questions, and more, surround the mysterious bowls of mashed potatoes that turned up on doorsteps, in mailboxes and on top of parked cars in one neighborhood in Jackson, Miss., this week.

“What does it mean?” local television station WLBT wondered. “And will they strike again?”

The inscrutable tubers appear to have first been discovered by residents of the historic Belhaven neighborhood on Tuesday morning. At around 7 a.m., Jordan Lewis, who has lived in the neighborhood for five years, walked outside and spotted a bowl resting against the windshield of her cherry-red car, where you might normally expect to find a parking ticket or concert flier. Rain had fallen overnight, and at first, she thought the watery, glue-colored mush had once been potato salad.

“I walked around the house and threw it away,” she told WLBT. “I was grossed out by it.”

Later that morning, Lewis posted about the perplexing discovery on Facebook. Within a matter of hours, four people had responded to her with exclamation mark-laden messages, telling her that they had woke up to find that someone had inexplicably placed bowls of lumpy, beige mashed potatoes in their front yards. “I’m so glad to read this!” one wrote.

Michaela Lin had been equally baffled when she stepped outside and found a plastic foam bowl of mashed potatoes precariously balanced on her mailbox. She was relieved when a neighbor across the street told her that she wasn’t alone: One of the neighbor’s Facebook friends had mentioned finding mashed potatoes in her car that morning. “I was like, oh, okay, so this is a thing today,” Lin told WLBT.

Soon, the odd turn of events was the talk of Belhaven, which has been cited on multiple lists as one of the country’s best neighborhoods thanks to its tree-lined streets and photogenic historic homes.

“Mississippi’s most creative individuals have found their way to Greater Belhaven,” notes the American Planning Association. “Among the residents are celebrated writers, artists, and musicians.”

And, apparently, someone with unusual ideas about mashed potatoes. As word spread, the mystery deepened. Who would go to the trouble to make mashed potatoes, or perhaps acquire them through other means, then scatter them around the neighborhood? Why not eat them instead? Why were they left at some houses but not others? Why potatoes?

The most likely explanation, and the least interesting one, is that someone came up with a weird idea for a practical joke: Lewis told WLBT that she assumes it was a harmless prank played by “some kids or college students in the area.”

Lin, similarly, told the station that some of the mashed potato recipients had been staff, students or alumni of Belhaven University, a private Christian institution situated in the neighborhood. “I feel like there’s some sort of connection there,” she said. Maybe, she theorized, the mystifying potatoes had come from someone whom she knew.

Sebastian Bjernegard, who almost stepped in a bowl of mashed potatoes that had been placed on his doorstep when he left for work at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, pointed out another possibility.

“Some people were thinking maybe the mashed potatoes were poisoned to kill animals,” he told WJTV. “I didn’t taste it. I have a three-second rule, so I didn’t touch it. But some people were worried.” (The Wikipedia entry for Belhaven alleges that there are a number of outdoor cats in the neighborhood, “most of whom are friendly,” but also notes that a citation is needed for that claim.)

Still, no one felt the need to inform law enforcement, according to WJTV. Instead, residents seem to have accepted the unsolicited mashed potatoes as merely another local eccentricity.

“This neighborhood does a lot of quirky things,” Lewis told the station on Tuesday. “We decorate road signs, we put Christmas trees in our potholes, so it’s not surprising at all. That’s why I love this neighborhood, because they do so many strange things. But it’s definitely one of the weirdest things I’ve seen since living in Jackson.”

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