In 1747, the English cookery writer Hannah Glasse located in London, England, took boiled potatoes and mashed them. This recipe was written into a published cookbook, sold even at Mrs Ashburn’s China Shop, and needless to say was sold in many places. It was delicious. This was only 260 years ago, but the popularity of mashed potatoes is still on the rise, especially around Thanksgiving. After this probable appeasement of her Irish husband, Hannah Glasse fiddled around with the recipe and started serving the first true mashed potato, which called for a pint of milk and a ¼lb of butter to two pounds of mash (hence the potatoes). White potatoes, or “potatos” were added for the mashed potato version. The most popular flavours we know now, like double baked, boiled, loaded, plain, and ethnic were added later.
It turns out each of these toppings and flavours have a somewhat unique origin story. Mashed potatoes are really an eclectic mix of mash and potatoes that don’t just come from England. They also come from the places they colonized. In this way, it’s really an 18th century meal, only made possible by globalization and colonization.
Why the Potato?
Potatoes are starchy, tuberous crops, from the perennial nightshade, Solanum tuberosum. Originally indigenous to the South American Andes as a staple food, it went global when England decided to colonize South America. Through indigenous genocide and European settlement, most modern potatoes as we know them today in North America have arrived through this route. Easily adaptable to the European climate (except for the timespan of 1845 to 1852) potatoes yield abundant crops. To mash [pronounced: mash], originating from the German word, Maische (German for mash), is the action used to consolidate these tuberous starches into the delicacy we know today. The natural potato colour is often left to get the off-white mash used now in mashed potatoes.
Chives are widespread in nature across much of Europe. It has evolved to have a milder flavour than others in the Allium species. Originally consumed by the Romans as an herb that can increase blood pressure and act as a diuretic, it gained popularity for its uses in the culinary as well as ornamental realm many years ago.
Water (molecular formula: H2O) is responsible for bringing the potato process to a boil (no pun intended). It is a transparent and nearly colorless, and hence, flavourless, chemical substance found abundantly throughout earth… but it’s really delicious. It is the physical process of changing state that allows for the cooking of the potato, which will later on be mashed.
The earliest butter originated from sheep’s milk, as cattle were thought to not have been domesticated for another thousand years. Butter is a solid dairy product resulting from the churning of milk cream, used to separate butterfat from buttermilk. Originally consumed on toast, butter gained popularity as a source of flavour in mashed potatoes only recently.
Salt (not to be mistaken for the film starring Angelina Jolie), is primarily composed of sodium and chloride, a chemical compound that when reacted together, create the flavour that we enjoy. So as not to overwhelm the senses and overpower the taste of the potato, a pinch of salt (and not a bit more) is added to these European delicacies to preserve the gentle balance between the white food and the white sensibilities.
Apparently, ethnic was one of the first non-white mash flavours of mashed potato, made by incorporating other spices not found in the native European lands (but rather the areas they colonized). Spicy ethnic mash was inspired by the colonized groups trying to maintain their identity despite the settlers forcing their lifestyles upon them. Ethnic powders, made by using spices and herbs found in their lands and culture, and then ground or just added as-is to the mashed potatoes, are mixed into the mash. The same technique is used now.
And there you have it: mashed potatoes. With its growing popularity in Toronto, this meal is worth knowing about. Bloor Street Market first opened in downtown Toronto in 2011, and has many different flavours of boxed mashed potatoes. Loblaw’s (which has over 1000 locations and claims to be the largest boxed mashed potato operation in the Northern Hemisphere) opened in 1919. Victoria College student Zoe Kwan is a frequent patron of Loblaw’s Mashed Potatoes: Zoe says that eating mashed potatoes is not just an enjoyable hobby, but a lifestyle. Referencing an old adage: “You can’t buy happiness, but you can colonize other countries to get the food we love and know today, and it’s basically the same thing.”
–written in collaboration with Nicole G (they/them pronouns)