It was January 2004, the start of my second semester of my freshman year in high school. This particular school had an overcrowding problem, which meant that some classes were located in outbuildings and portable classrooms. Among them were all of the foreign languages the school offered (Spanish, French, Latin, German, and Russian), of which students were required to take two semesters’ worth of lessons in the same language to graduate.
The foreign languages were housed in a collection of portables at the edge of the parking lot, aptly nicknamed “International Village”. It was a cutesy name for an inconvenient location. Getting to a class in International Village meant walking down a flight of stairs, out a back door, through the back parking lot, down a hill that ran past the football stadium, and past another outbuilding. The distance was approximately a half mile each way.
That might not be much to the average teenager, but I was a teenager with a rare disease that made walking that distance difficult… a disability that the school administration did not want to accommodate. Every day, I had five minutes to walk that half mile to French class and five minutes to walk the half mile back to the main building afterward. Bitter cold? Wind? Rain? Didn’t matter. Half the time I’d arrive breathless, dizzy, and sweaty. The other half I’d arrive to a reprimand for being late.
The exertion quickly took its toll on me. I’d come home from school so exhausted, I had to take a nap before anything else. I’d wake up for a couple of hours to eat dinner and do my homework. Then it was straight back to bed, only to get up and do it all again the next day.
Two weeks into the semester, I felt a telltale tickle in my throat. I ignored it as long as I could and managed to push through school for a few days until the tickle became a full-fledged sore throat. My mom took me to the doctor, and I tested positive for strep. The doctor prescribed a round of antibiotics, but they didn’t kill the infection. Two weeks later, I still had a sore throat so bad, I could barely swallow. The doctor referred me to a specialist for a tonsillectomy.
My surgery was scheduled for February, nearly a month after my sore throat started. It was another three weeks after that until I could swallow comfortably. That meant nearly two months of barely eating. The only foods I could eat were soup, yogurt, oatmeal, bananas, and my grandma’s homemade mashed potatoes.
My late grandma, or Nanny as we called her, was an amazing cook! Every time I visited her house, delightful smells wafted through the air as soon as I walked through the door. Those smells were a sure sign that a delicious dish was on its way!
Nanny loved cooking for others as much as everyone else loved eating her food. Whenever someone had a birthday, anniversary, or other important milestone, she would cook that person’s favorite dish in honor of the occasion. If someone was sick or not eating well, she’d be over with a hot meal.
In the nearly 35 years I had her in my life, I can only remember disliking one dish she cooked. She left behind such an extensive list of favorite foods that it was nearly impossible to narrow it down to one about which to write. In the end, it had to be her mashed potatoes because that’s the dish that holds the most fond memories for me.
Mashed potatoes were a staple in Nanny’s house. Not only did she make them for me when I was sick with a sore throat, but they were always a huge hit at family gatherings. She made her signature mashed potatoes every Thanksgiving and Christmas for as long as I can remember, and there were hardly ever any leftovers!
Even simple, everyday meals like rotisserie chicken or pork chops were enhanced by Nanny’s mashed potatoes. So many times in my childhood, I visited Nanny on the weekends, and more often than not, mashed potatoes were on the menu. The only thing better than eating those mashed potatoes was helping her make them! When I was little, that meant adding the evaporated milk and spices. As I grew up, she entrusted me with the more complicated tasks like peeling, chopping, and mashing the potatoes.
Although I didn’t inherit Nanny’s culinary skills, I helped her in the kitchen enough times to know her mashed potato recipe by heart.
Nanny’s Mashed Potatoes (4-6 servings)
- 4 large Idaho potatoes
- 6-8 cups water, enough to cover potatoes
- ¼ cup butter (about half a stick)
*you can substitute margarine if you prefer*
- 1 5oz can evaporated milk
- ½ tsp butter sprinkles (Nanny always used Molly McButter, but any brand will work)
- ½ tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp salt
*spice measurements can be adjusted according to taste*
- Vegetable peeler
- Knife & cutting board
- Large pot
- Colander or strainer
- Measuring cups & spoons
- Can opener
- Potato masher
- Stirring spoon
- Thoroughly wash 4 large Idaho potatoes.
- Peel potatoes & slice into rounds about ⅓ inch thick.
- Place sliced potatoes in a large pot with enough water to fully cover them, about 6-8 cups.
- Place the pot on the stove and bring to low heat. Allow potatoes to simmer for 45-60 minutes or until soft, stirring occasionally.
- Remove potatoes from the stove and drain excess water using a colander or strainer. Return potatoes to the pot.
- Now comes the fun part: the mashing! Using a potato masher, mash the potatoes for about 2 minutes, leaving large potato pieces.
- While the potatoes are still hot, slice ½ stick of butter (about ¼ cup) into pats and add to the pot.
- Gradually add 1 5 oz can evaporated milk, stirring until the milk and butter are fully incorporated.
- Mash potato mixture for another 2-3 minutes, or until you’re happy with the consistency.
- Add salt, black pepper, and butter sprinkles. Stir until fully incorporated.
- Taste the potato mixture. If it’s seasoned enough, you’re good to go! Otherwise, repeat steps 10-11 until the desired level of seasoning is achieved.
When I make these potatoes myself, I like to use a garlic salt & parsley mixture instead of regular salt.
If you prefer a creamier texture, you can blend the finished potato mixture using a hand mixer on its lowest setting.
When Nanny got too weak to cook, it became my job to make the mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving and Christmas. She passed on her recipe to me, and now I do the same for you. I hope that when you eat these delicious potatoes, you feel every bit as loved as I did when Nanny made them for me!