Twelve years into this whole parenting thing, I know a few things for sure: The baby will need your attention at the exact moment the garlic in the pan goes from golden to blackened; bribery is a necessary evil; and—perhaps most relevant for the phase I’m in right now—mashed potatoes are crucial for surviving the middle-school years. I’m not talking about the kids’ survival here. I’m talking about my own.
Let me back up a bit. In the spring of 1983, I was probably the happiest 12-year-old who ever lived. I had the starring role of Adelaide in my elementary school’s production of Guys and Dolls; I was on the travel soccer team; I never lacked for lunchroom companions. I had my own CB windbreaker, which wasn’t a hand-me-down from my sister (a first), and I even had a requited crush (another first) on a kid named Mike, who was cool enough to pull off a shell necklace.
By the fall it was all gone. My small grade of 100 kids matriculated to the much larger middle school, where my lunchroom companions found new lunchroom companions, who were interested in makeup (I was not); snapped each other’s bras at gym (I was years away from wearing one); and made fun of me when I asked them to “play.” (“We say ‘hang out’ now, Jenny.”)
Even when I said it the right way, though, no one wanted to play or hang out. Maybe it was because I wore a really uncomfortable re-tainer that made me talk funny. I tried to look on the bright side, telling myself, At least I don’t have braces. But that only worked until Mike ditched me in favor of his next crush, who had top and bottom braces, as well as the much coveted red CB down jacket, the one with the quilted back.
I clawed my way back eventually, but 30 years later, like many people, I can still tap into the acute pain of being lonely, confused—and unceremoniously dumped.
For years I thought that this epic fall from grace would make me a great mother to girls, that I’d be more attuned to my own two daughters’ socio-emotional temperature and more equipped to protect them from whatever middle-school situation reared its ugly head. That is to say, I wasn’t afraid to do a little micromanaging if it meant, somehow, that I could spare them the pain of being excluded down the road by any bra-snapping, blue-mascara’d monsters.
This worked out fine when they were little. I called other moms and arranged playdates with kids who appeared to have soul-mate potential. I picked up the phone and raised a tiny bit of hell when the summer-camp director put one in a group without the friend we had requested. More than once, I’m not proud to admit, I made place cards for my daughters’ parties to ensure that they were sitting next to the kids who made them happiest. God forbid my children’s birthdays end up not being The Day of All Days.
But then I entered middle school. I mean, my kids entered middle school, and it became clear that the issues we were dealing with were not ones that I could resolve. At the dinner table and during car pools, I’d hear stories about girls excluding other girls from parties and excursions for reasons that no amount of questioning on my end could get to the bottom of.
All I could do was listen and play out the imaginary conversation with the Queen Bee’s mother. In the worst-case scenario, she’d take offense; in the best-case scenario, she’d talk to her daughter and say…what? That my daughter told on her and got her in trouble?
I don’t know a lot, but I do know that a mandate-wielding mother is among the lowest forms of life on a seventh grader’s food chain. Sure, I can talk to school administrators about getting the girls matched up with the right teachers, and I can look for a new soccer program if the old one isn’t working out. But negotiating the politics of middle-school girls? If ever there was a situation where a mother was utterly powerless, this was it. There was no phone call I could place to fix the problem.
Except to my own mom. I could call her, and during one particularly dicey drama, I did. She told me what I already knew: I’d have to sit this one out, as well as the next one and the one after that and the one after that, too. It was time to let the kids figure this stuff out on their own. But in a vehement tone that I imagine she reserves for her most unruly clients (she’s a real estate attorney), Mom did give me one tangible way to help: “You just make sure that when those girls walk in that door every day,” she said, “they never doubt that home is the most comforting place for them to be. That is what you can do.”
This made a lot of sense to me. Comfort was something I could get a handle on. And as a food writer and blogger, I knew better than anyone that comfort was, in fact, something I could cook. Family dinner had long been a priority in our house, and I started to feel a new swell of appreciation for the ritual that allowed for a safe, happy break from whatever else was going on—in both the kids’ and the parents’ lives. I also started thinking more carefully about what I served at those family dinners and which dishes shouted “I Love You” the loudest. I kept coming around to mashed potatoes.
I remembered that once, after a particularly brutal braces-tightening session, I had asked my 12-year-old what she was in the mood to eat for dinner. Her beleaguered response: “I don’t care what you make, as long as there are mashed potatoes on that plate.” A few weeks later, when she and her sister were slogging their way through state-test week, the request came again. And these days whenever there is a rough day in the lunchroom or the classroom, an ortho appointment, a crushing loss in a double-overtime shoot-out, or anything that falls under the category of “something Mom can’t make a phone call to fix,” I find myself making mashed potatoes.
Will it exorcise my own middle-school demons? Or solve every one of my daughters’ adolescent anxieties from now until college? No, of course not. But I’ll tell you one thing: However small it is, it sure feels good to do something.
Jenny Rosenstrach’s Classic Mashed Potatoes
Below is the basic formula for mashed potatoes, but riffing on it is encouraged. I always fold in something extra: a tablespoon of prepared horseradish, caramelized onions, a very generous handful of freshly grated Parmesan. Serves 4.
- 4 baking potatoes, peeled and cut into thirds or quarters
- 4 tablespoons butter, plus more for serving
- 3/4 cup milk, cream, or half-and-half
- Salt and pepper
- In a large pot, cover the potatoes with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until a knife can slip through the biggest piece with no resistance. This usually takes about 15 minutes. Drain, remove potatoes, and return empty pot to stove.
- Add the butter and about 1/2 cup milk or cream to the pot and heat until warm and the butter has melted. Heat the remaining milk or cream in the microwave for about 30 seconds.
- Add the potatoes back to the pot and, using a hand mixer, whip until smooth, adding more warm milk or cream until you reach the desired consistency.
- Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve each dollop with another pat of butter so it creates the necessary little pool of melted fat on top.
About the Author
Jenny Rosenstrach is the author of Dinner: The Playbook (out this month) and Dinner: A Love Story ($30, barnesandnoble.com). She also blogs regularly at dinneralovestory.com. She lives with her family in Westchester County, New York.