Mashed potatoes are my favorite dish, bar none. They are wonderful at all times, but best enjoyed in a setting both genial and intimate, where the only expectation is that you keep cozy and eat your fill. I enjoy them whenever I eat them, but I’ve found the optimal time to eat mashed potatoes is for breakfast, as you situate yourself, tousled and drowsy, between crocheted throw and couch. Perhaps a cat snoozes by your side. Probably an innocuous show murmurs from the television.
And yet it’s rare that I tuck in under these halcyon conditions. I’m not the primary cook in my household, and even if I were, homemade mashed potatoes demand more preparation than I have time to give. With these constraints, I must rely on the culinary kindness of others—generally family, and almost exclusively over the holidays. For years, on the mornings following Thanksgiving and Christmas, I would stumble into my family’s kitchen: a well-trodden hub flush with past echoes, so thoroughly known I could locate a coffee mug while bumbling drunk in the dark. Slathering a plate with my mother’s mashed potatoes, I would fend off covetous glances from my father and youngest sister: my two primary potato rivals. When I settled at the kitchen table, a dog or two would amble to my side, communicating their interest in any scraps I was inclined to share.
Rituals amass significance when they become rarities; at the very least, you pay more attention to them. Growing up, post-holiday mashed potato binges were not fodder for contemplation. I lived at home, which guaranteed access to more mashed potatoes at relatively frequent intervals. My mother navigated the kitchen by intuition, coaxing every ingredient to deliver her intentions to its most glorious capacity. It goes without saying that her mashed potatoes are an unrivaled delicacy, and she has always ensured that I eat my fill of them—at dinner of course, and for breakfast too. Like so many other things, I took my bounty and my ease for granted. To be sure, I understood what it meant to perform in more foreign contexts; anxious children always do. If, hypothetically, I were served mashed potatoes at a slumber party, beneath the gaze of strange parents, the violence of self-regulation would have inevitably usurped taste.
Even in girlhood, I acknowledged that “home” was a concept with the potential to grow. I diligently absorbed conventional coming-of-age narratives. Eventually, I supposed, I would forsake my seat at the family hearth, marry—“Born—Bridalled,” Emily Dickinson summarizes—and thread another person’s history and kinfolk into my own domestic web. But I’m a supplicant to inertia: I acknowledged the probability of change without anticipating its continental shifts. Privileged with home and family, each extant in both fact and spirit, I never wanted for a sanctuary unfettered by pretense and poise. I would never lack for a haven where, voracious and vulnerable, I gobbled mashed potatoes for breakfast. Driblets of gravy would fleck my upper lip — indelicate, but inconsequential when my bowl was still full. My mother, swaddled in her fleece robe, would take coffee orders. (If you doubt the compatibility of coffee and a bowl of mashed potatoes, allow me to disabuse you of that misconception.) I have married, and write for a living in Washington, D.C. I don’t make mashed potatoes, and neither does my husband. If I am honest, I prefer the protracted wait. Sometimes even little rituals merit sacrifice.
But marriage demands more than that. When my husband Paul and I claimed one another as family, we poured together our lives and habits and proclivities. Now we rummage through them, adapting, compromising. One necessary outcome: I no longer spend every holiday with my family. One beneficial objective: to learn to love Paul’s family as my own—to cultivate mutual intimacy, discard social performance, and uncover my vulnerabilities without shame. To eat mashed potatoes for breakfast. When we join a new family, we cannot possibly know whether these are feasible, or even prudent aims. (And it felt a bit presumptuous to demand mashed potatoes the first time I accompanied Paul for Thanksgiving.)
As it turns out, there was no need to take such liberties. Paul confided to his mother, Maria, that my love for mashed potatoes was a pious, fervent one. And she, a generous soul, took especial pains to produce a munificent batch—and, I must add, a delicious one. I’ve since spent multiple holidays with Maria, my mother-in-law. This year, Paul and I will join her, and the rest of his family for Christmas. When we convene for the holiday supper, there are always mashed potatoes, and because Maria is a talented cook, they are always divine. And from the first spoonful on that first Thanksgiving, I could taste that they were made with her love. She had not known me long, but I mattered to her, and she, too, was calling me home.
When I wake up at Maria’s house the day after a holiday feast, I fumble over suitcases and cats to make my way to the kitchen. I microwave a depraved heaping of mashed potatoes and make my way to a sofa with a mouth cushioned and deep. It swallows me with warmth—perhaps there’s even a blanket at my disposal, draped over one plump arm. I chew deliberately, sleepily, and think about my mother and father and sisters. I miss them. I am still home.
Rachel Vorona Cote is a writer living in Washington, D.C. She has written for a number of venues including The New Republic, Literary Hub, Hazlitt, and The Hairpin. She is also a contributor at Jezebel. You can find her on Twitter here.