Mashed potatoes: Comfort ye, my people
It came as an urgent written message from a granddaughter pleading for comfort and comfort food: "Grandma, we'll see you at Thanksgiving — please be sure to bring mashed potatoes when you come."
I was part of the mashed potatoes team for Thanksgiving this year. I helped wash, peel, cook and mashed pounds of spuds to be added to the on-site batch — there's nothing worse than running out of mashed potatoes during the holiday season.
We didn't run out — we all had our double or more helpings and we had some left over to be enjoyed during the following week. I'm sure it is clear to all of you that mashed potatoes are essential for comfort during the holidays, but unlike turkey, mashed potatoes are not just a Thanksgiving specialty.
I enjoyed the mashed potatoes so much, I dreamt about them the following week. It was a weird, scary dream really. Suddenly I was transformed into an Irish farmer during the years of the Irish potato famine between 1845 and 1849. This was a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration in Ireland due mainly to a potato blight.
There were two main blight diseases, one was a dry rot or taint and the other was known as "curl." The potatoes rotted in the field.
We farmers were on tiny tracts of land of one to 15 acres — owned by absentee landlords who lived mainly in England and rarely, if ever, visited their farms or the tenant farmers.
Potatoes had become our principal food and we had to grow enough to feed our families and pay the rent. The landlords, not getting their rent, were foreclosing on our tiny farms (charity and government relief were almost nil) which led to a few landlords getting murdered. It was a scary, troubled time. In 1846, three quarters of the harvest was lost to blight.
Since over three million Irish people were dependent on potatoes for food, hunger and famine were inevitable. Over 21,000 Irish died from starvation between 1840 and 1850 and over 420,000 died from diseases (fever, diphtheria, cholera, smallpox and influenza) during the same period.
The dream continued: What could we do? Over 250,000 packed up and sailed for places they hoped would be better: England, Scotland, South Wales, Australia, Canada and America. In America, the Irish became city dwellers because, with little money, they had to settle in cities where their ships landed: New York City, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore. It was an American immigration problem and the Irish were not welcomed.
If you've ever wondered why so much Irish music sounds so sad and soulful, now you know. Songs like "The Fields of Athenry," "Famine," and "Thousands Are Sailing" tell the story. It's the pain of hard times, loneliness, and hunger for mashed potatoes.
The dream wandered to the American Great Depression — the dust bowl, crop failures and widespread unemployment during the "dirty 30s." The still living children born during that miserable era in American history, the "Depression babies," are old now, but they remember.
In 2018 we don't worry about potato blight, famine or a return of the dust bowl, but we know nothing is certain. We ought to heed warnings about global climate change and our role in creating the existence of this undeniable problem. And we ought to give thanks for blessings like fertile fields, sunshine, rain, abundant crops and mashed potatoes.