The Real History Of Mashed Potatoes


We wanted to separate fact from fiction and take a serious look at one of our favorite foods, mashed potatoes! So, today, we are exploring the real history of mashed potatoes.

Here at The Food We Know we gave you a recipe for meatloaf – rich, meaty and glorious. But then we felt remiss. We didn’t give you an accompanying dish. So how about some decadent mashed potatoes? You might be thinking, “Mashed potatoes, who cares?” But just like our meatloaf, we are bringing game. But, first, a little history because food always tastes better when you know something about it.

A history of mashed potatoes….and it’s not Irish

Mashed potatoes are a staple in almost every Irish household, but the side dish has a long and storied history that has little to do with Ireland.

They were first a staple for the Inca Empire, and for the Spaniards who conquered the Incas and remained in Latin America mining silver.

Sailors who returned to Spain from the Andes brought potatoes back along with the silver, and historians have speculated that potatoes not eaten on the voyages were taken ashore and planted before the end of the 16th century.

“Potatoes are a New World crop, first domesticated in what is now southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia.”

Yet, potatoes initially failed to take off in Europe. In France, potatoes were so unappetizing that the French government passed a law banning them as a food source for humans in 1748. Instead, potatoes were reserved for animal feed in France, while some believed that they actually caused leprosy.

Ironically, it was a Frenchman who was one of the first people to discover one of the tastiest variations of the potato, a dish that would become increasingly popular over the course of three centuries, namely, mashed potatoes.

Antoine-Augustin Parmentier, a French military pharmacist who served in the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France, was captured by Prussian soldiers and forced to live on a diet of potatoes while imprisoned.

Forced to eat potatoes or starve to death Parmentier discovered that potatoes were not the leprosy-inducing animal feed that the French people believed them to be. The imprisoned pharmacist actually discovered that potatoes were a delicious food source and began experimenting with different variations.

Antoine-Augustin Parmentier

Following his release from prison, Parmntier returned to France and began to tell his countrymen about the wonders of the potato. He demonstrated different ways to cook them, including mashing them, and began to call on the French government to lift the ban. 

Parmentier began a series of publicity stunts in his campaign to lift the ban on potatoes, hosting high profile dinners where different variations of the potato, including mashed potatoes, featured prominently. The French government was eventually forced to lift its ban on potatoes in 1772.

Eventually, farmers in Europe found potatoes easier to grow and cultivate than other staple crops, such as wheat and oats.

More importantly, it became known that potatoes contained most of the vitamins needed for sustenance, and they could provide for nearly ten people for each acre of land cultivated.

The arrival of the potato in Northern Europe virtually ended famine. 

By the end of the 18th century in much of Europe potatoes had become what they were in the Andes, a staple.

Potatoes were so productive that they effectively doubled Europe’s food supply, at least in terms of calories.

In the 1840s a major outbreak of potato blight, a plant disease, swept through Europe, wiping out the potato crop in many countries. By this time the Irish working class lived largely on potatoes and when the blight reached Ireland, their main food staple disappeared. This famine left many poverty stricken families with no choice but to struggle to survive or migrate out of Ireland.

Even though the history of the potato is well documented, the origin of mashed potatoes is a little cloudier. Some food historians say the Incas mashed their potatoes, but not in the way we think of them today.

The inventor of mash potatos as we know and love them today was Hannah Glasse. Glasse was the Julia Child of her time and was very popular in Britain and its colonies.

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington all owned copies of her cookbook. And, of course, we cannot forget Parmentier in France.

Regardless of the origin of mashed potatoes, a solid understanding of how to perfect this beloved side dish is a great way to impress family and friends at a potluck dinner and to accompany our sublime meatloaf recipe.

Let’s Do It!

Modern mashed potatoes, which incorporate butter, cream, and other dairy products, first appeared in print in the mid-18th century cookbook, The Art of Cookery, by Hannah Glasse

Simply Amazing Mashed Potatoes

The first thing to do is roast some garlic. That’s right, garlic. You are going to roast some garlic to incredible, spreadable softness, and then you are going to mash it into your mashed potatoes, and it’s going to make those potatoes amazing. And you know that adding a moderate quantity of roasted garlic to your mashed potatoes won’t cause them to taste overwhelmingly of garlic.

In fact, an unwary eater could consume a heaping mouthful and not necessarily recognize that the taste is roasted garlic. What our unsuspecting eater will recognize is that the mashed potatoes taste good….superbly good, deep and nutty and warm and surprisingly vibrant for boiled and smashed “tubers.” And that is your aim: delicious tasting food and not a dull starch that might end up in a nap.

There’s not much to this. Peel the outermost layers of skin off two whole heads of garlic with a knife, slice off and discard the top quarter inch of each intact head, exposing the flesh of the individual cloves. Then drizzle these cloves with some extra virgin olive oil; wrap them in aluminum foil; stick them in a 400 degree oven for a half hour. At the end of the half hour, the garlic cloves will have turned a sensual caramel color and your home will be filled with the voluptuous aroma of cooked garlic. The roasted garlic is very hot. Set it aside for a while.

Next, (peel and) chop some potatoes. How much? Say, five pounds of ‘em? That sounds good; they make great leftovers. Peel your potatoes or don’t peel your potatoes. Remember it’s your food and you can do what you want with it. Hack them into quarters or eighths, so they will cook more quickly and offer less resistance when you crush them.

As for what potatoes to use, russets are the classic choice, because of their starchy, floury texture, but you can use what you like. Idaho potatoes are fine for mashing, Yukon Golds are a little waxy but they will yield some tasty mashed potatoes. Stay away from reds and fingerlings, for the main reason that they’ll take much, much longer to soften.

Take your potatoes (peeled or not) and cover them with cold water in a big pot. Boil them for a while. Probably at least a half hour depending on how small you chopped them. Prod them with a fork to be sure they are soft.

Once the potatoes are finished boiling, drain them in a big colander. Now you need to be quick. Add some stuff to the still warm pot: as much of a stick of unsalted butter as your conscience will allow you, plus a few big slugs of milk (or heavy cream if you want). Never use fat-free milk as it will add nothing but sadness to your mashed potatoes.

Now dump the drained potato hunks into the pot with the butter and milk. Add the roasted garlic to the pot. Get mashing! Destroy your potato hunks and roasted garlic and combine them with the milk and butter. If you want to mash with a potato masher or a big fork or even a sturdy wire whisk, go for it. (No hand mixer, this is not whipped potatoes.) Mash and mash and mash.

After a few minutes your potatoes and garlic and butter/milk will have become a thick ethereal delight with some number of minor lumps in it….or maybe no lumps, depending on your work ethic.

Season with salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Mix this in, taste, and repeat as necessary….until you realize that you are eating potatoes and cannot stop and it might actually be a little bit dangerous. At that point, they are probably seasoned to perfection.

There. Mashed Potatoes from The Food We Know. You’re Welcome.

Now, just in case you ended up on this page and were looking for something else, here’s the other story. “The Mash Potato” describes the dance movements that became a popular craze in 1962 made famous by the James Brown song “(Do the) Mashed Potatoes” and “Mashed Potato Time” performed by Dee Dee Sharp. Both songs went to the top of the charts. If that’s what you were looking for, we’re happy to help. Now if only there was a song called Meatloaf and Mashed Potatoes.