Le Weekend, 11/17/23: It’s Time for Mashed Potatoes!

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whom I wrote about in my “Le Weekend” just two weeks ago

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Friday, November 17, 2023

Dear Frenchly Readers,

It’s uncanny to me how often I turn to Google to go down a rabbit hole of curiosity and find yet another French person playing some central role in the story. This was the case with my recent deep dive into, of all things, mashed potatoes.

But before I tell you that story, I need to tell you that I was not able to write my “Le Weekend” last week because I had surgery on Thursday. And though I was told I’d be a-ok to think and write on Friday, I was definitely not a-ok. I was sad not to write to you or at least tell you why I had disappeared.

Then, I spent a good part of the following days feeling a bit like Baudelaire, looking out my window. But, in my case, not penning any poems. Instead I was just observing the old cobwebs left by  my bedroom’s police force (cellar spiders, love them). After a day or two of staring at the ceiling, I finally had the focus and energy to watch All the Light We Cannot See, the new Netflix adaptation of the 2014 Anthony Doerr book of the same name. Instead of my then-passed “Le Weekend,” I took some time to write a review. You can find it here.

Ok, so back to potatoes: The night Dan and I got back from the hospital, our friends Pete and Sarah dropped off a loaf of Pete’s shepherd’s pie. Though I was too nauseated to eat much of anything, smells of browned potatoes and garlicky meat wafted upstairs and they smelled amazing. While taking a break from staring at the ceiling, I decided to find out (perhaps this is the kind of simpleton thought one has while on drugs) where mashed potatoes came from. And that lead me to all this:

The homely potato was imported by the Spaniards from the Incas in the 1500s. The Spanish then exported the potato to the U.K. and France. Ireland adopted the potato happily, as had their Spanish cousins. Soon the Irish were happily creating a mashed dish that had kale or cabbage in it; they called it Colcannon. But the French took one look at the potatoes and were like, “no way.” They thought that potatoes were ugly, unrefined and might cause leprosy. Witchcraft might be inside the potato, some thought, and released when punctured. In 1748, the French actually outlawed the potato for people to eat. It was only fed to hogs.

Then came the Seven Years’ War and a French soldier named Antoine Augustin Parmentier, who was, when not in the army, a scientist and pharmacist. He had some bad luck that turned into good luck: He was captured and imprisoned in Prussia. In jail, he survived on potatoes chucked to him every once in a while as an insult. I imagine a chuckling jailer. In Prussia potatoes were also used only as livestock feed.

When Parmentier made it back to France, he began to publicize the virtues and versatility of potatoes (the potato his madeleine, by now, despite how he came by them — they had turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him, a manna of sorts). He suggested potatoes as a cure for dysentery. And he even held competitions for how to make potatoes in many different ways, including mashed. I hesitate to say that this Frenchman invented mashed potatoes. Apparently, the Incas mashed their potatoes all along. But for Europe he “invented” them as, apparently, this way of eating them hadn’t yet occurred to anyone on the Continent.

Parmentier also did stunts to increase the popularity of potatoes, like placing armed guards around his potato garden until dusk, when he would dismiss them. Then,  people would come in to steal his “precious” potatoes in the dark, sometimes replanting a bit in their own gardens. (All part of his plan.) He also served potatoes to Ben Franklin and other dignitaries, and gave bouquets of potato flowers to the King and Queen of France. He started making potato flour bread as a way to conserve wheat. Finally, after his tireless pro-potato campaigns, in 1772, the French ban on floury potatoes was lifted.

And then came the potato dishes now bearing Parmentier’s name: Crème Parmentier, or potato leek soup; Hachis Parmentier, or Shepherd’s pie; purée Parmentier, or mashed potatoes, which is now mostly just called “purée.”

It wasn’t just food with potatoes that bore his name, either! There’s a subway stop in Paris named after him (and is the best stop to go to one of my favorite GF bakeries in Paris, Chambelland.) And the French say that if you say “Parmentier” you are saying spud. You don’t need to say “potato potato.”

Fast forward a couple hundred years and it was Joël Robuchon, the Michelin-starred French “chef of the Century,” who took the humble mashed potato and turned it into haute cuisine by mashing potatoes with butter at a 2:1 ratio. (I love butter. Do you?)

Whatever you end up doing with your mash, whether you add cream, thyme, and shallot; do a brown butter mash; three pounds of butter and a sprinkle of pepper; or make like the Irish with kale, enjoy them. The lowly  pomme de terre has come a long way without much change at all, baby.

À cuisiner, boire, regarder et lire ce weekend:

All the Light We Cannot See, which I wrote about this week, takes place in Saint-Malo, France and is based on the book of the same name. Check out my review, below, and save the show for the long holiday weekend, perhaps. (In the absence of Get Back, we’re going to need something this year.)

Or, the new movie, Nyad, about a 60-something year-old-woman who swims from Cuba to Key West, and stars Annette Bening and Jodie Foster.  Foster mostly plays herself, which isn’t uninteresting. But Bening, I hope, will be nominated for an Oscar. She is moving and complicated. It’s a fabulous movie. (On Netflix!)

To get ready for Thanksgiving, we have some stories we are turning back to in our archives, see below: An essay about a guy who spent Thanksgiving in Provence with a girlfriend; he lost the girlfriend but came home with a chaton. Another about why moving to France meant saying au revoir to Thanksgiving. And some French tarts–sweet and savory–you might consider for the holiday. Check out these gorgeous goat cheese tarts.

Or how about this crème brûlée pie? That looks like a Frenchified showstopper to me.

PSA: While at it with potatoes, I also went down the rabbit hole of which kind of masher is the best: Apparently the “S masher,” the kind made out of wire to form an “S,” has been used for hundreds of years and is the best. The round kind with the holes, like I have, can make your mash gluey if you over mash and the starches get overworked. I think this happened once.

In a funny synchronicity moment, the writer, A.S. Byatt, whom I wrote about in my “Le Weekend” just two weeks ago, when I wrote about Matisse, has just died.

Have a good week, see you after Thanksgiving.

À bientôt,

Caitlin.

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