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What the Pilgrims missed

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READY TO COOK: Yukon Gold potatoes are a good choice for mashing.

Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff

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They are a must-have on most Thanksgiving menus - white fluffy clouds slathered with butter or gravy. Turkey would be lost without them. So would stuffing, and cranberry sauce would seem far too assertive.

But too often mashed potatoes are taken for granted, a bland, familiar staple in need of a holiday makeover.

Don't blame the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians for that. They didn't have this dish at their feast in 1621. Potatoes weren't introduced to New England until the 1740s, according to Sandra Oliver, editor of Food History News.

No one knows just when - or why - cooks started mashing their spuds. But by the late 1700s, New Englanders were cooking up all kinds of potato dishes, which probably included mashed potatoes.

The appearance of mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving made sense since it is a late autumn holiday, and potatoes are plentiful then. "Mashing up starchy vegetables was just something people did back in the late 1700s," says Ms. Oliver.

She has an 1845 cookbook titled "New England Economical Housekeeper," which includes a Thanksgiving menu recipe for potatoes and turnips mashed together. However, Oliver suspects they were a staple at Thanksgiving long before that.

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