personal essay

The Old-School Secret to My Grandma’s Thanksgiving Mashed Potatoes

published Nov 20, 2019
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

I can live without turkey, stuffing, or even pumpkin pie, but it never truly feels like Thanksgiving to me without the most important part of the meal: the traditional mashed potatoes.

Oh sure, historians will tell you that mashed potatoes were not originally part of America’s Thanksgiving tradition. Heck, potatoes hardly existed in Plymouth Rock-era America. Instead, when the Pilgrims and Wampanoag first sat down for their fateful feast, they probably ate turnips! That’s too bad. Because there’s nothing quite like a nice warm plate of creamy, comforting mashed potatoes.

Mashed potatoes make everything better. I learned this virtue early on. As a kid, I hated to eat peas — gross, mushy peas. That is, until one day when my grandfather showed me a simple trick: Stick your fork in the mashed potatoes, then gently press the fork on top of the peas. The peas will stick to the potatoes through the tines on the underside of the fork, but you don’t really notice them going into your mouth. You don’t really taste them either because the mashed potatoes are too delicious. I’ve loved mashed potatoes ever since. 

My grandmother Bonnie made the very best mashed potatoes. Every year at Thanksgiving (and often at Christmas too), she whipped up a big batch, served in a massive antique ceramic dish. The holidays were always a major family affair, with relatives packed around multiple tables and little kids everywhere running amok. Many of us lived in the same small Appalachian town of Bluefield, which straddles the southernmost Virginia-West Virginia border, a community fiercely proud of its scenic hills and high school football teams. Bonnie’s husband John (his grandkids called him “Grandy”) was a Bluefield native. Bonnie (or “Bondy”) hailed from Ohio and attended college in Pennsylvania. But for as long as I knew her, she spoke with a sweet Southern accent and affectionately called everyone “Honey.”

The “puh-tay-tuhs” were Bonnie’s specialty for nearly half a century, from her days as a young mother right up into her golden years. Other family members would sometimes help her peel the spuds, but she usually handled the rest herself. Her recipe leaned heavily on dairy, with a hefty dose of warmed milk, a small container of sour cream (preferably with chives) and a whole stick of butter or margarine. Later, she’d sprinkle on black pepper and top with even more butter, then bake until lightly browned. I always made sure to have two, if not three, huge helpings, and it never seemed like enough. 

For years, I assumed the secret ingredient was love. It wasn’t until adulthood, when I started making the recipe myself, that I realized it was something else: onion powder. It’s the second-to-last thing mentioned on her list of ingredients, but it makes all the difference. 

The seasoning, basically just dried onions pulverized into powder, is a veritable flavor bomb, estimated to be 10 times stronger than fresh onion. It’s the sort of old-school cooking move that is sometimes frowned upon amid today’s predominant fresh-is-best philosophy. But there is enduring wisdom is that little supermarket bottle — and a whole lot of oomph. Most mashed potatoes are good, but mashed potatoes with a hearty dose of onion powder? Next level.

How much onion powder? It’s hard to say. Bonnie wasn’t big on exact recipes. She liked to tell a story from her childhood (later included in a family cookbook) about the time she asked for specifics on her own mother’s “scrumptious” noodle recipe, receiving only vague instructions about what “feels right” and to “just watch and learn.” “I learned to just enjoy my mother’s noodles … and they were awesome!”

I only wish I could just sit back and enjoy my grandma’s awesome mashed potatoes today. Since she passed away, I’ve tried to pay tribute by making her mashed potatoes myself, following her inexact recipe as best as possible. I always put in the whole stick of butter. I always try to buy the sour cream with chives. And I never, ever forget the onion powder.