Food

An ode to the humble mashed potato

This is why the beige food that doesn’t make it onto Instagram feeds will always be our favourite…

I love eating my dinner while watching cookery programmes.

The contrast between trembling chefs placing edible flowers on beds of sea algae and me, wrapped in a dressing gown, eating sloppy, salty piles of potato, gives me a strange sense of satisfaction. I know I’m enjoying my food more than Gregg Wallace as he navigates tiny portions of beetroot done 17 ways. Be it with gravy, baked beans or butter, be it smoothed with milk or cream, be it roughly mashed so you get the odd solid bit of potato dispersed in the yellowy goodness – mashed potato is my winter food of choice.

Mashed potato is comforting. A word that, when used about food, is often meant disparagingly. Like a guilty pleasure. But I always want my food to feel comforting – I don’t need to be challenged by what sits on my plate. Particularly now, when Brexit looms and headlines promise the oncoming apocalypse, I want my food to be nurturing, warm, and simple. If Sainsbury’s is looted, it won’t be the papaya and blood oranges that are missing from the shelves. It will be the pasta, bread and potatoes that people are scrambling for. 

potatoes food

 If Sainsbury’s is looted, it won’t be the papaya and blood oranges that are missing from the shelves…

This feeling of comfort has science behind it. Research has found that mashed potato, Yorkshire puddings and all of their beige counterparts are part of a carb-heavy food group that helps release serotonin. We have not imagined it. There is a reason we reach for cheese on toast when we come in at 10 o’clock after working late in the office. Put simply, it makes us feel better.

Yet despite all this, beige food has a bad reputation. You can imagine someone on Come Dine With Me screwing up their nose and saying ‘it was all a bit beige’, before giving the meal a solid four. Unless you’re talking about a trench coat or nude heels, nobody likes ‘beige’ – it sounds dull and unappealing. It is associated with cheap finger food, where everything from prawns to duck to vegetables is made to look and taste similar, coated in indiscriminate yellowy orange. And yet show me a party where people are hovering around the pickled cabbage leaves and not the battered prawns, and I’ll show you a party I’d rather avoid.  

Beige food makes us happy. Fact.

My love for beige began as a child. My favourite dinner was a battered sausage and chips, and once a week my dad would drive us to the fish and chip shop to get dinner for the whole family. He would put the tightly wrapped oily packets of food on my lap, where the heat would build on my knees so I had to wriggle around to stop them from burning, while the vinegary, salty smells filled the car. It was an affordable way to keep a family fed and quiet.

This love for beige continued throughout university. My lunch menu would consist of instant noodles (put in extra hot water to mop up the flavoured water with a slice of bread), and a packet of Quavers. This could be bought for a handful of change. Plus noodles do not go off, they can be stored anywhere and you only need a kettle and a bowl to make them.

The love has lasted, only gaining in complexity and ambition. Now I experiment, mixing swede, carrot, parsnip and sweet potato into the mash, changing proportions, adding nutmeg, parmesan or chopped chilli. The combinations are endless. Sometimes I eat mash with a slow-cooked stew, other times I settle with only ketchup as an accompaniment. I have 12 types of pasta in my cupboard and spend too much money on sourdough so sweet I can tear whole chucks off it and eat it plain. Beige can be a little fancy, too.

But here’s the thing. Despite the joy this food gives me, I’ve never once shared a photo of myself making it, or eating it, or looking at it longingly before I devour it. Yet sharing food on Instagram is big business (#foodporn has been used 185 million times), with popular foodie accounts gathering more than a million followers. The images we choose to share reflect on us, whether it’s yoga on sun-soaked beaches, well-crafted interiors, or rainbow-coloured breakfast bowls and silky egg yolks oozing over (s)mashed avocado.

Mashed potato doesn’t work in this world. It is hopelessly unphotogenic. Mashed potato is like spooning the person you love on the sofa at the end of the day: comforting, reassuring, familiar, but absolutely nobody wants to see it a picture of it on their Instagram feed. But food doesn’t need to look good to taste good. 

Mashed potato is the ultimate winter comfort food.

Years ago, a friend bought her new boyfriend on a night out. When they left arm-in-arm after the last drink, a mutual friend described him as ‘a bit beige’. He was quiet, he had a waterproof in his rucksack, and he appeared wholly uncomfortable in the trashy bar we’d dragged him to. But she’d never looked happier. He continues to make her laugh more than any of us can.

Love isn’t always shiny. Dinner isn’t always ‘Instagrammable’. Some of the most precious things are our most private.

As I tuck into my mashed potato, beans and cheese tonight, I will not be reaching for my phone – and my meal will taste all the more delicious for it. 

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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