When Mashed Potatoes Are the Gateway to Bigger Family Talks
Whether smooth as silk and ribboned with butter, a lumpy volcano erupting with brown gravy, or a glorious mess of skins, garlic, and parsley, you’d think mashed potatoes were the side-dish equivalent of a peace treaty.
Though recipes and cooking methods and what makes for the “best” version may vary, surely everybody can put their differences aside and unite behind the satisfying end result.
Yet it was mashed potatoes that seemed to be the catalyst for my complete meltdown. Mind you, it was the holiday season. I was sitting in the backseat of a Lyft, making my way through downtown San Francisco, texting with my siblings over the menu for our regular Christmas Eve dinner. We’ve been cooking this elaborate meal together since our late teens, and although the debate over what to prepare isn’t always fiery, I am usually the most outspoken voice of dissent when it is.
I had always supposed that it boiled down to meat and the fact that I don’t eat it. As a pescatarian, I tried pointing out that we could grill shrimp, sear scallops, or roast a whole salmon. My brother followed up with a garlicky linguine recipe that could accompany our protein of choice. I searched for kale Caesar salad recipes, propelled by the adrenaline of planning a perfect meal.
While debating between a citrus-topped pavlova or flourless chocolate cake for dessert, my sisters’ responses began to roll in.
A few members of the family had recently felt sick after eating shrimp. Mom had never been a fan of salmon. Scallops were difficult to find in any grocery store in our small Missouri town. The pasta sounded good, but would it be enough? What if we made a traditional pot roast, like the old days? There’d be green beans and rolls and lots of mashed potatoes for me to eat.
Could any of them have anticipated my wrath behind the three bouncing dots that appeared on their screens?
My responses of “mashed potatoes aren’t a meal,” and “You guys do whatever you want,” were laced with expletives.
Why was I crying? The battery on my phone began to drain as message after message set my phone abuzz. Suddenly we were arguing over everything: family, politics, work, life choices… every grievance we had ever felt was being shot across the virtual bow like an emotional cannonball.
Let’s be honest, I was doing most of the firing. I felt out of control. Being asked to eat mashed potatoes as my main course clearly represented a plethora of other injustices.
Why is planning dinner with your adult family so hard?
Surely my relatives and I aren’t the first to have felt this sort of frustration. It’s an understood societal norm that the dining room table on Thanksgiving, for example, is the perfect battleground for a political feud: Even if “politics” have been banned from discussion like it often is at my parents’ home, where conservative Republicans break bread with a few progressive Democrats like me.
My refusal to eat meat, an uncle who doesn’t help, a grandmother offended by my glass of wine, a cousin who picks at his plate wearily while asking if anyone bothered buying organic… all of these subjects are political and usually spark as much tension as a conversation about presidential candidates. My family had found the perfect way to curtail the fighting: We would eat out. No need to navigate around emotional landmines if I can have avocado toast and you can have biscuits and sausage gravy and our conversations can be refereed by an eager server refilling our drinks.
Covid changed everything. When I decided in early March to shelter in place with my family back in the Midwest, I didn’t yet anticipate how big a challenge gathering around the table for a nightly meal would be. I understood that it would be better to come together, not to mention healthier for me to not be stuck in my tiny San Francisco studio. But as I ate my first plate of mashed potatoes for dinner, it dawned on me: The discomfort I’d felt over the holidays was now on the daily menu.
Most nights, we found a happy medium. Eggs, beans, and pasta — the staples we as a nation lived off of for three straight months — were easy crowd-pleasers. Sprinkle in the occasional curbside pickup from our favorite Chinese takeout place, and you’ve got a relatively happy family. Because the first few weeks of sacrificing constant personal choice in favor of communal good seemed doable, remember? But by late April, we began to feel the strain. I was craving mapo tofu, oysters, sushi, and Mission-style burritos. My family was ready to grill hamburgers and steaks without constant eye-rolling from me.
If the tension had only been around meal planning, that would have been challenging enough. But our country’s scattered state-by-state response to coronavirus hovered over the table. My news from California sharply contrasted with what was happening in Missouri. I spoke of colleagues and loved ones cooped up in their apartments, worried about how they were going to make it. My father spoke of this or that business reopening, their parking lots overflowing with customers eager to go back to life as normal. We hadn’t chosen what was happening, yet we couldn’t help but share our opinion. And as polite as we tried to be (we are Midwestern, after all), fights happened. After a particularly rough evening — we were tired from labor-intensive shrimp-kabob preparation and a short-fused debate over Trump encouraging churches to open back up — I couldn’t help but wonder what our breaking point would be. Like the rest of the nation, we just wanted back out again, we wanted to order individually from the menu instead of continually sacrificing for the common good.
What meal, what fight, would push us over the edge?
I thought I’d found my answer. On the first day of June, I decided it was time to travel back to California. And the last conversation I had over dinner with my family was about George Floyd. I’ll admit it, this time, we didn’t cook. We ordered pizza, cardboard-like stuff from a chain, half of it covered in copious amounts of meat that everyone knew offended me. I started to push back, but there was an entire vegetarian pie for me, a guilt-laced testament to just how much I truly am loved.
My mother sprinkled parmesan over her piece as she spoke of a Black Lives Matter protest my brother would be attending in St. Louis. I broke what I had anticipated to be a long pause by quickly emphasizing it was the right thing to do. And instead of the instant change of subject I had also wrongly expected, I was met with a chorus of agreements. The phrasing was awkward; we all measured our words carefully, sure. But there we were, a little old (white) Midwestern family, having the conversation about police brutality, systematic racism, and presidential tweets that weren’t helping anybody.
It seemed as though, after so many meals of trifling over other issues, we were finally able to stop fighting and talk.
I’m not the first voice to plead that we never go back to normal. Even now, when essential grocery lists and baking challenges occupy much less headspace than they did at the start of 2020, let’s continue to prioritize meeting around a table and collaborating over a home-cooked meal.
We can argue over mashed potato recipes. But we’ve got a whole lot more to discuss.