Mashed potatoes are one of the most popular dishes you can serve, especially during the Fall and Winter months. It’s common on Thanksgiving and Christmas tables, not to mention any other meal when it’s cold outside.
A lot of people associate potatoes with the Irish, because of the Potato Famine, forgetting that Potatoes are a New World food with origins in South America, not Europe.
Of course, like a lot of New World staples, potatoes are a popular food all around the world today. From mashed potatoes to French Fries, everyone has their own favorites. To quote a certain Hobbit, “boil ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in stew” no matter how you make potatoes, you’re in for a treat.
But, what are the real origins of this delicious food? What is the real forgotten story of how mashed potatoes ended up on so many dinner tables?
How We Almost Missed Out On A Great Thing – The Unpopular History of Potatoes
Potatoes were already used as a good food source in parts of the Americas, particularly in South America. After all, the tubers are starchy, filling, actually pack a fair amount of nutrition, and are also long-lasting and store well.
We don’t know too much about potato production or eating before colonial days, partly because there is a lack of written records from the people who would have been cultivating and eating them, and also because archeological research is having to fight with popular opinion about the Native peoples of the Americas as we learn more.
But we do have extensive records of what it was like introducing potatoes to the people of Europe.
Potatoes were originally brought to Spain by Spanish sailors and conquistadors who explored the Andes mountains. The original introduction in Spain wasn’t much of a problem. Like a lot of new foods, people were mostly ambivalent, neither particularly excited nor particularly resistant to the idea of eating the tubers.
The problem was when potatoes started to spread to other European countries, particularly France.
In fact, the French found potatoes so unappetizing that they were banned from human consumption for a time. The only potatoes grown in France, or imported from neighboring countries, were used as animal feed.
The law wasn’t an unpopular one, either. People didn’t want to eat potatoes. But having them as an animal feed alternative did mean that farmers could potentially grow more of their other crops for human consumption.
It wasn’t until a French prisoner of war returned to the country that potatoes, and especially mashed potatoes, would gain traction.
What About The Rest Of Europe? Did They Eat Potatoes?
Potatoes weren’t super popular in the rest of Europe either. While some people thought potatoes might be an aphrodisiac, others were convinced that eating them could make you sick, even spreading leprosy.
Today we know that that isn't true, but that didn't change that a lot of people adopted the new food only reluctantly, both for its new taste and texture, and because of the strange way it was cultivated.
Farmers didn't buy seeds if they wanted to grow potatoes. Instead, potatoes spread through small cut-up pieces of potatoes themselves. So farmers would buy 'seed potatoes' to chop up and sew their fields.
Sir Walter Raleigh imported potatoes into Ireland in 1589 – an act that both gave Ireland a new food source and set the Potato Famine in motion. Later, when the famine was starting, Ireland actually grew plenty of food. The problem was that the potato crop was failing, while the English were exporting Irish food off of the island.
The exception was potatoes since they weren't a popular crop food in England. And since that had been true since the introduction of the potato, Irish people had gotten used to eating potatoes because it was often one of the only foods they could reliably grow for themselves.
Potatoes remained unpopular in Europe until King Frederick of Prussia planted the potatoes during the war, finally getting more of the Prussian people to accept them.
Despite being a New World food, the unpopularity of potatoes in Europe also prevented them from coming to the Colonies in North America. Potatoes weren’t found in the British colonies until the Governor of the Bahama sent a gift that included potatoes to the Governor of Virginia, in the 1620’s.
How Did Potatoes Gain Popularity?
Antoine-Augustin Parmentier was a French military pharmacist in the 7 Years War. While serving, he was captured by Prussia and held as a prisoner of war.
Since potatoes had been popularized as a wartime food in Prussia, that was what Antoine-Augustin Parmentier and his fellow prisoners of war were fed. Since he was a pharmacist, he would quickly realize that the potatoes didn’t spread leprosy, contrary to popular opinion in France.
When Parmentier returned to France, he decided to try and convince his countrymen of the wonders of the potato. He gave talks, showed farmers how to grow them, and even showed people different ways to cook potatoes, all while lobbying the government to eliminate the ban on human potato consumption.
In 1772, Parmentier’s efforts succeeded, and the government relaxed the ban on potatoes, to the delight of farmers, since potatoes proved easier to grow than other crops.
People also quickly discovered that growing potatoes was an incredibly effective way to feed people since potatoes contain most of the vitamins you need in your diet. A single acre of land could, when growing potatoes, feed as many as ten people per year.
Aside from the great potato famine, potatoes are an incredibly important historical crop. They are one of the main reasons Europe stopped experiencing famines.
But we’ve already talked about the origin of the Mashed Potato. Antoine-Augustin Parmentier helped popularize mashed potatoes during his original pro-potato campaign. He included mashed potatoes in his cooking demonstrations, ensuring that the dish would have a long-lasting legacy in European and American cuisine.
Were Early Mashed Potatoes Similar To The Mashed Potatoes We Eat Today?
Surprisingly, yes. One of the earliest written recipes for mashed potatoes recommends boiling the potatoes before peeling them, but the other steps should be familiar to modern cooks. They recommend mashing the potatoes with milk, butter, and a little salt.
The biggest difference is that most people probably add more milk butter and seasoning to their mashed potatoes, since Mary Randolph’s 18th-century recipe only called for an oz of butter and a tablespoon of milk.
By most standards today that would make for some very healthy, but pretty bland mashed potatoes. Why not dress them up and make some delicious Herb and Garlic Mashed Potatoes instead.
How Modernization Changed The Mashed Potato
We aren’t quite done with the history of mashed potatoes yet though! Even though mashed potatoes have been around as a recognizable dish for a couple of centuries now, there are still a few changes that happened between recipes showing up in Europe and the colonies, and the modern mashed potato.
The first innovation that made a big difference? The Ricer!
How The Ricer Helped Mashed Potato Popularity
The ricer, which has absolutely no connection to making rice, has always been about making a better, easier, mashed potato.
Ricers are named for the size and texture of boiled mashed potato pushed through a ricer. The starchy vegetable takes on the appearance of mushy rice, but it’s a lot faster and easier than with old fashioned masher tools.
The invention of the ricer not only shows how popular mashed potatoes were at the time (roughly the beginning of the 1900s), but also helped make them more accessible and easier to make.
Ricers also helped avoid the most common problem associated with making mashed potatoes, over mashing.
Over-mashing potatoes is what causes the gluey texture you sometimes get, instead of a pillowy soft mash. That's because the starches in potatoes will glue and stick together when you overwork them.
Riced potatoes don’t need to be mixed as much, and still give you the delicious lump-free mashed potatoes we all love.
What About Instant Mashed Potatoes
What about the other big innovation in mashed potatoes, the instant mashed potato?
Instant mashed potatoes came to us from the 1950s. The Eastern Regional Research Center, a research facility operated by the USDA, found a new way to dehydrate potatoes that allowed them to be quickly rehydrated at home.
This wasn’t actually as new a technology as it seemed at first though. The first dried potatoes were probably created by the Inca, who essentially freeze-dried potatoes by taking advantage of the natural environment of the Andes.
The idea of using potatoes as long-term food storage for families and especially soldiers, which was one of the reasons behind finding ways to preserve potatoes long-term with the USDA, also isn't new. The Inca pioneered this one and frequently used their freeze-dried potatoes as rations for soldiers. They also stored excess potato crops against future food shortages.
Thomas Jefferson also tried his hand at drying potatoes. His invention took grated potatoes and then pressed all the liquid out to create a dry potato cake that could be stored long-term. Rehydrating these cakes was easy, and also resulted in a mashed potato-like texture.
The biggest problem and reason this method didn’t catch on, was because the potatoes often turned purple in storage. That didn’t make them inedible, but it did change the flavor and most people thought it was unpleasant. So, for a while, dried potatoes just weren’t in demand.
It wasn’t until World War II that people had renewed interest in preserving potatoes and other foods, which is why it took until the 1950’s to have a shelf-stable dried mashed potato product that rehydrated into a palatable dish! And there you have it! The history of Mashed Potatoes! While you’re here, if you’re looking for more cozy Fall and Winter side dishes, check out our list of the best side dishes to serve with pot roast (or any hearty Fall meal!)