I always wondered where the magic came from.
It being my mother’s mashed potato recipe, I just assumed it was love.
I have had them in a thousand meat-and-threes, spooned out by ladies in hair nets and orthopedic shoes, and in a thousand perfect bistros, dusted with parsley or parmesan.
None were as good as hers, conjured in her battered pot in the pines of Alabama.
I asked her secret.
“Just butter, milk, salt and pepper,” she lied.
I know she lied because I tried it, homesick, in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, other places. I almost lit Cambridge on fire, trying to create what that old woman had.
But when I was done, it was always, well, pedestrian.
Her potatoes were creamy, perfect, with real butter pooling in small lakes. Lumps were for tourists. Skins were for Philistines. These, cliché or not, melted on your tongue, with just a little extra, a lingering taste of … what? I could duplicate everything but that.
Then, lurking just outside her kitchen one Thanksgiving, I saw. It was not some magic turnip, or some deep woods spell.
It was just a damn condiment.
After mashing, salting, peppering and adding whole milk and what seemed a half pound of butter, she opened the refrigerator and reached for a quart jar of mayonnaise.
She took one heaping spoonful, for about a gallon or so of mashed potatoes, and whipped it in, meticulously, so that there would be no more than a hint, that touch, on any fork.
I eased back into the shadows, to leave her with her myth.
I should have known.
Only we would put mayo in our mashed potatoes, and mistake it for love.
This is a story of tragic romance.
I love that condiment, love it the way Odysseus loved Penelope, Samson loved Delilah, Lancelot loved Guinevere. I know, as they all must have known, that this will not end well, but I am not ashamed.
When I am on my deathbed, probably from a lifetime of bad cholesterol, I hope someone gives me a little packet of Hellmann’s, or Kraft, or Duke’s, or Bama, so I can slip it underneath my pillow like a scrap of scripture or a family photo. It will comfort me, I believe, as darkness falls. Then again, someone could just make me a sandwich.
My wife, who knows everything, says there are two kinds of people in this world. First, there are people like her, mustard people, who wake up in the morning and run five miles, or at least talk about how they used to. They wear clothes ordered from catalogs, the ones that show people hiking, fly fishing, or paddling a canoe, usually beside a Labrador puppy. They eat flax and what appears to be horse feed and swear they like it, and would no more let whole milk pass their lips than hemlock. They have never had high blood pressure, except when talking about their feelings. They have never had gout, which they even like to say, but can eat a whole pound of dark chocolate without ever having to check their blood sugar. They will tell you with a straight face that sometimes they just forget to eat.
Mustard people make their doctors happy, with arteries as slick as the inside of a drinking straw, and make their children sad, by putting carrot sticks in lunchboxes, with apple slices as a special treat. They like to vacation in Colorado, and Wyoming, and the holy grail of mustard people, Portland, Oregon – really any place with hills they can walk up and down, or gorges they can plunge into on their mountain bikes. They like smoked salmon, rare tuna, and are wholly responsible for keeping the turkey population of this United States whittled down to a manageable level, one whole-grain, mustard-accented, boring sandwich at a time.
And then, there are the rest of us.
We wake and drive five miles, to eat pancakes. With any luck, that will be the only meal of the day at which we will not have mayonnaise. We like L.L. Bean catalogs, too, but only because they offer most of their clothes in XXL, and we like their running shoes, which we wear to Popeye’s, and the mailbox–if it is not too far.
We would not get near a canoe even if it was the only thing we could hide under during a lightning storm. We like to vacation in New Orleans, where you have to go uphill to drown, where every flat, easy street seems to dead end into a platter of shrimp rémoulade, fried eggplant drizzled with béarnaise, or fried oyster po’ boys slathered in … well, you know.
At home, we like any fish that comes with a side of tartar sauce, and if we are going to have a sandwich it will likely be roast beef and cheddar on an onion roll, with mustard and mayo, and we do not even mind some lettuce, tomato and hot Spanish onion, as long as the whole thing is buried under an avalanche of Zapp’s Hotter ‘n Hot Jalapeno potato chips, and served with a quart of Barq’s Root Beer or sweet iced tea.
Because, you see, we do not hate on the mustard people, at least not as much, or as often, as they sneer at us.
They make us feel like we are the Great Unwashed, and equate our love of mayo with other poor life choices, like an unsound 401K, or dating a stripper with a tattoo of the Dark Lord Voldemort.
My wife looks at me, a jar of mayo in my hand, with something very near disgust.
“Why don’t you just have some mustard?” she asks, in that tone that really means, Who are you, and what have you done with the man of my dreams?
“Don’t want no mustard,” I say, sounding like I am 4.
Then she stands over me, to monitor the mayo. By the time the sandwich is made, there is not enough mayo to smell, let alone see, and she is happy because I am not.
“You can have all the mustard you want,” she says to my back, and my head fills with voices telling me to do terrible things.
I wonder what kind of judge I will get at my trial.
How much you want to bet that she will be a mustard person, too?
I guess it is a weakness, a sin, like sloth or various forms of coveting, but like most bad things that Southerners do, I shall blame it on my heritage.
I grew up in the Alabama highlands, among working-class Southerners who never got anywhere close to the aristocracy unless we were putting in their transmission. It is a culture of mayonnaise, as much as moonshine, hard work, football, stock car racing and the Congregational Holiness Church. People say it is that white whiskey, that spirit distilled by my grandfather in these mist-shrouded hills, that runs in our veins, but my doctor will tell you it is mayo, with some smidgen of bacon grease, that really trickles through.
I know mayonnaise has old-world origins and world-wide appeal, that people like it in Fargo on canned pears, and in France, on fries. I had it in Addis Ababa, at the airport in Amsterdam, and on a chicken sandwich in Islamabad. There are many popular theories of its origin, that the Romans and Egyptians used some combination of oil and eggs to mask the flavor of spoiled food, but the most popular is, of course, that we blame the French. But unlike tight pants and pointy shoes, they got this right. It is believed the recipe was acquired from the town of Mahón in Menorca in 1756, after a victory over the British by Louis-Francois-Armand du Plessis de Richelieu. The sauce mahonesa in Spanish became mayonnaise. Food historians still fight over this, mostly in relative obscurity.
The French can claim it, but we know it is Southern by the grace of God. If you think I am overstating this, you are clearly from some place with excellent ice fishing, where people know how to spell Z-A-M-B-O-N-I without having to look it up.
In the Great Depression, mayonnaise was more plentiful – and cheaper – in some pockets of the Appalachians than lard and other cooking oil. My grandmother fried chicken in it on a wood stove outside Rome, Georgia, and if that is a rural myth it is a first-rate one. Try that in mustard, and see where it gets you.
My wife, as a young girl in Memphis in the 1920s … I mean the 1970s, covered her head in a gooey helmet of mayonnaise as a hair conditioner. It might have had some slight effect on the luster of her hair, but she walked around for days smelling like egg salad. (I think that this is why she is a mustard person now, but she says no, that it was because her grandmother believed that mayonnaise should be left at room temperature, which indoors in Memphis in summer was about 125. “My mother told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t eat the mayonnaise,’” she said. I guess fear will turn you off anything.)
When I was a boy, mothers used mayonnaise on burns, like petroleum jelly, and to cool sunburn, but never on bee stings, on which they used wet snuff. Women in my childhood used it to smother ticks, especially when they were out of Dippity Doo. They suffocated head lice with it, sometimes holding it on with plastic wrap, or a crown of tin foil.
But mostly, we just ate it. We ate it in creamy cole slaws, and mountains of potato salad, and daubed on top of gelatin molds at the Morrison’s Cafeteria.
We spread it on white bread, because it was the only sliced bread we knew, and made sandwiches from sliced tomatoes, salt and pepper. Or, we layered on sliced banana. To this day, I think that sandwich, with a handful of Golden Flake barbecued potato chips and a glass of milk, is pretty fine living, and have it every chance I get, which means when my wife is at work.
Without it, we would have no BLTs, no pimento cheese, no deviled eggs. Chicken salad, shrimp salad, crab salad, lobster rolls, all would lie sadly on their plates, naked and forlorn.
Even my wife, the mustard dictator, will give me that.
She likes chicken salad, she says, but always asks the waiter, “Now, is it real mayonnaise-y?”
I hang my head.
I think, finally, she has won.
I make the best cole slaw on this earth. It is simple, with fresh red cabbage, and good carrots. I use real mayonnaise, but mix in black pepper, and garlic, and a dash of onion salt. It is delicious with pinto beans and ham, or beef short ribs with potatoes and onions, or just a few captain’s wafers and a glass of tea.
At least, I used to make the best.
My wife has insisted that I now use only low-fat mayo, and that, of course, is crazy talk. It does not taste the same, or even look the same in the bowl. There is no joy in it anymore.
I understand how it would make a slaw or salad less deadly for a 51-year-old man, but it seems so absurd to use low-fat mayo on a ham and cheese, or Philly cheese steak, or an egg salad sandwich, like ordering two Cheese Whoppers and a diet Coke.
People tell me I need to grow. They tell me I need to let loose of the old ways, and embrace this time. I have tried. I have.
I stood at the mayo aisle the other day, in alarm.
It was so complicated. Used to be, you only went wild at the mayo display if you reached for some Miracle Whip. Now, the labels read Hot and Spicy, Reduced Fat with Olive Oil, Chipotle, Horseradish Dijon (made with Grey Poupon), Basil Pesto, Sweet Chile, and, Lord help us, Wasabi.
I am sure it’s all good, and most of it is low fat.
I bet mayo people will like it.
I think even some mustard people will like it, too.
But I walked away a little sad.
My Aunt Edna, who died last year, made the best cornbread in this world. It was dense but light and moist, not grainy, crumbly, but perfect.
I heard, once, she mixed a little daub of mayonnaise into the batter.
That may not be true.
I do not want anyone to tell me, if it’s not.
I hear Elvis liked mayonnaise, liked it a lot, on hamburgers with a slab of Velveeta. But, of course, we all know what happened to him. Still, I can’t be a mustard person, and I can’t abide this low-fat mayonnaise any more. I could move to France. My wife would let me have mayonnaise if we lived in France. Like all snooty mustard people, she is funny that way. But I don’t know anybody in France.
What I can do, is wait for her to go out of town.