Last Call at the Mashed Potato Bar

          A mashed potato bar transforms the lowly potato from something that just takes up room on the plate into a main attraction! 

          The Famous Mashed Potato Bar,

The holidays are always the worst.  The rest of the year I can skate by, sneaking a double order of mashed potatoes at lunch, buying a penny mint from the cashier on my way out so my wife doesn’t notice when I get home.  But the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas, followed by a bleary round of New Year’s Eve potato parties?  I’m constantly carbed out, and just hope that no one notices the starch on my breath.

No, there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide at the end of the year.  Everyone’s cheerful as hell, inquiring into matters that would be considered “off limits” from January to mid-November.  They lean in to you, so they can’t help but notice the sour cream on your lapel.  A lot of businesses close up shop at Christmas Eve until the end of the year, so you’re home all the time or worse, traveling with family.  You can’t escape.

Meg–that’s my wife–has stood by me through the tough times.  One time she found Tater Tots in my suitcoat pocket and confronted me.  I put her off, saying they were leftovers I’d brought home to stick in the toaster oven if she wanted a night off from cooking, but she saw right through that thin tissue of lies.  “Russ,” she said, gripping me by the biceps and squaring me up to look me straight in the eyes:  “That’s a pretty thin tissue of lies you’ve got there.  You have a potato problem.”

I knew she was right.  She knew she was right.  She knew I knew she was right, and I knew that she knew that I knew she was right.  After a while, I got so dizzy from the hall-of-mirrors effect of the cascade of self-conscious reflections that I collapsed, unable to keep up with her.

“We’ve got to do something,” she’d said.

“Sure, sure,” I said as I raised myself on one elbow and slowly got up from the floor.  “Listen, I . . . left some papers at work, I’ve got to go back and get them.”

“You sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I’ll just scoot into the office and be right back.  Work will help settle my mind.  And stop thinking about . . .”

“I know.”  She looked up at me, tears forming in her eyes.  “You’ll come straight home–right?”

“Promise,” I said, but I was lying.  I had crossed my fingers, King’s X-no noogies, behind my back.  What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her–but it was killing me.

Of course, I didn’t get anywhere near my office.  I headed straight for Boston’s all-night potato district, a veritable carnival midway of mashed Solanum tuberosum bars.  There was The Groovy Tuber, The Palace of Carbs, The Spuddy Duddy.  The crowds were young, carefree–what did they know about the wreck that mashed potatoes could make of a man’s life?

Sure it was easy to push them–the potatoes, not the kids–aside when they’re instant from the pouch, or when you’re full from turkey and gravy and stuffing on Thanksgiving at your parents.  But when they’re tarted up with cheese and scallions and pulled pork toppings–show me a man who can resist that sort of temptation, and I’ll show you a man without a soul.

“Oh Jeez.  Don’t look now, but here comes Mr. Potato Head again.”


I pulled off the Mass Pike and drove down to Quincy Market, where you could stagger from bar to bar and never miss a steam tray filled with piping hot potatoes.  I had a veritable smorgasbord to choose from, but I’ve been run out of too many of them.  If I’m going to keep my addiction hidden from my wife, I can’t pay for it out of our joint checking account.  I’m tapped out of petty cash at work, so I have to find a place that will let me run a tab.

Like Bill’s Bar.  Voted “Worst Ambience” of any potato pub in Boston for six years running, and damn proud of it.  There’s usually just me and a couple other losers, along with some tourists who got lost on the Freedom Trail.  My specialty these days is spinning them a yarn about how Paul Revere slept on my fold-out couch the night he did the “One if by land, two if by sea” gag, seeing if I can cadge a $5 tip for showing them the “real” pahk-your-cah-in-Hahvahd-Yahd Boston.

“Hey there, Smitty,” I call to the impassive publican who’s drying the silver as I walk in the door, playing dumb, hoping he’ll forget how he threw me out Halloween Night after I’d been on a two-day twice-baked potato binge.

“Hi, Russ,” he says, non-committal.  Probably wants to see what I’ve got in the way of ready cash before he gives me the bum’s rush.

“What’s the special?” I ask, picking up a menu like I haven’t a care in the world.

“Mashed sweet potatoes,” he says, not looking up.  “That comes with a side of russet mashed and hash browns.”

I can’t figure out whether he’s taunting me, knowing I can’t afford the full spread, watching to see if my mouth will start watering.

“I’ll just have a side of fries to start,” I say nonchalantly.  “Gotta lay down a foundation, you know.”

“Suit yourself,” he says as he starts to walk down to the window into the kitchen before he stops on a dime–okay, maybe it’s a nickel–and spins around to confront me.

“It’s cash only for you, you know.”

“I know, jeez–no need to get shirty,” I say, a trifle too defensive, I think, when I hear the sound of my own desperate voice.

He walks off and while I’m staring into my complimentary glass of water I don’t even notice that a dame sits down beside me.  Her presence impresses itself upon me by way of her scent–it’s “Evening in Idaho,” the fragrance that drives potato addicts like myself stark, raving wild.

I turn to take her in, and like what I see–a woman who likes her potatoes, she’s got love handles like a piece of luggage that’s too big to fit in the overhead compartment.  She gives me a smile that speaks volumes–Aaron to Asparagus in the Encyclopedia of Tawdry Love.  I’ve put on more than a few pounds in my dive to the bottom of the potato patch, but I guess I’ve still got it, I say to myself.

“Good evening, miss,” Smitty says, as if he’s at the Copley Plaza instead of the God forsaken hole in the wall he’s the proprietor of.  He bought the place out of bankruptcy, and is too cheap to change the name from “Bill’s” to something that starts with a letter closer to his end of the alphabet.

“Good evening,” she says, cool as a cucumber.  “I’ll try the flight of potato samplings,” she says, and hands the leatherette menu back to the proprietor.  Unless I miss my guess, she wants to share them with me.

“That’s an excellent choice,” I say with a friendly smile.  “It gives you the chance to sample the full panoply . . .”

“What’s a panoply?”

“It’s a discontinued make of car,” I say, pulling her leg to see if she has a sense of humor.  “It went out with the DeSoto, the Packard, and the Studebaker.”

She looks me up and down, realizes I’m kidding, and graces me with a half-laugh.  Not a full-throated head thrown back laugh, just a keep-going-I-may-follow-you kind of snort/giggle.

“You’re funny,” she says with a smile that could light up a toaster oven.

“Funny strange, or funny ha-ha?”

“Funny ha-ha.  I’m surrounded by cold, unsmiling men all day at my job.  I like to have a few laughs before I go to bed.”

I give her a grin and purse my lips, like I’m the guy for her.  Smitty returns with the “flight”–when did Boston restaurants get so freaking pretentious–and as I hoped, she invites me to join her.

“We don’t get many nice women in here,” I say, slipping her a compliment in a subtle way.  “Are you from out of town?”

“You could say that.”

“Are you from out of town?”

“You already said that, no need to repeat yourself.”

“Okay–it’s an old gag.  So what brings you to Beantown?”

“Work,” she says, stirring the butter into her whipped potatoes with a swizzle stick.  “I have to travel.  A lot.”

She raises an eyebrow at me, and I decipher her code in a second.  She’s alone, on the road, lonely.  Looking for love, and as far as I’m concerned, in the right place.

She pulls a potato out of her purse, and I’m all over her like a pair of yoga pants.

“Allow me,” I say, as I whip out my pocket potato peeler.

“Thank you,” she says, as I scrape the skin off in slim, sensuous strips.  “It’s so rare to meet a gentleman these days.”

“I guess I’m a throwback,” I say.

“So am I,” she says.  “I believe men should hold doors open for a woman, and peel her potato.”

I sense where she’s going, and I gulp, involuntarily, as I look down at our rectangular plate, where five little potato palaces lay in ruins.  If she sticks me with the check, it’s going to be $25–easy.  That’s thirty bucks with the tip I don’t have.

“I . . . uh . . . had hoped we were going Dutch,” I say, a bit abashed at the mess I’ve made of her mashed.

“Dutch?” she says, snapping her purse open and throwing down a twenty and a ten.  “What does Holland have to do with the price of tea in China?” she says, mixing her metaphorical countries.

“That means we . . . split the cost.”

“I’m old-fashioned,” she says, batting her fake eyelashes at me as she gets up.  “I believe a man should pay.”

“But,” I begin, but she cuts me off.

” . . .  for sex.”



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