In a common version of the infinite monkey theorem, an infinite number of monkeys hitting the keys on a typewriter at random would “almost surely” bang out the works of William Shakespeare given an extraordinary amount of time — but almost certainly would not do it in anything resembling a human lifetime. The concept has been used across disciplines: in statistical mechanics to demonstrate the generation of random text, but also in philosophy to illustrate how art is not made by accident — even if a monkey managed to randomly type out Hamlet, it would not be in order to communicate the story of Hamlet. A monkey would not come up with Hamlet because Hamlet requires imagination, critical thinking, and intent.
I believe the same applies to loaded mashed potatoes served in martini glasses at weddings.
You have probably seen this phenomenon by now; in fact, by this point, it’s a little passe. During cocktail hour, next to the displays of cheese and fruit, or the bar with signature drinks in the married couple’s theme colors, is a caterer serving scoops of mashed potatoes in martini glasses. Guests grab their glasses and then move on to the toppings (sometimes also displayed in martini glasses), shaking bacon bits and scallions, and shredded cheese over their… cocktail.
It’s true that most people, given an entire lifetime, would not look at a martini glass and think it the perfect vehicle for potatoes. But to serve mashed potatoes in a martini glass does require intent, imagination, and an entire culture of conditions for at least one person to think this was a good idea. Its combination of strangeness and surprising practicality made it a wedding staple for at least a few seasons. It is an example of the kind of trend a chef or caterer offers that promises to solve the desires of any modern marrying couple: to participate in a codified tradition while also appearing set apart from their peers — conflicting desires that can never quite square.
In the banquet spreads of modern weddings, there are certain traditional foods that have become synonymous with the milestone, whether it’s cake or kola nuts, or Jordan almonds. At its core, human instinct seeks to create rituals in order to distinguish certain moments from regular life. “In a time when there were few written records, a wedding feast could emblazon in peers’ memory the knowledge that an official, sanctioned ceremony had indeed taken place,” writes Claire Stewart in As Long As We Both Shall Eat: A History of Wedding Food and Feasts. But as the wedding industry has developed, especially in Western Europe and North America, the standard for what counts as elaborate and unique enough to be remembered has risen, until we get the mashed potato bar… or walls of doughnuts hung on pegs, “bacon bars,” towers of cheese that resemble tiered cakes, and stations to customize bowls of cereal.
While it may seem as if these were all designed specifically for Instagram, John D’Arcangelo, managing director of the catering company Abigail Kirsch, thinks the mashed potato bar started popping up well before Instagram, in the late ’90s and early 2000s. “The mashed potato martini bar was a staple food experience for a long time because it brings together elements of surprise, glamour, and guest interaction,” he says. “Since this was during the time before we all were documenting everything on our phones and posting on social media, these types of trends made a big enough splash ... We would hear clients say [food offerings] like these were talked about for weeks.”
This is exactly how it went down the first time I saw a mashed potato bar. It was at my sister-in-law’s wedding in 2010. I shrieked. It seemed both obvious and inspired. I thought, That’s right, I LOVE mashed potatoes, and promptly filled a martini glass with equal parts mash and cheddar shreds. I kept going up to family members, making sure they saw it; I didn’t want anyone to miss out. And when friends asked me how the wedding was, I brought up the mashed potato bar almost immediately.
According to Gabriella Rello Duffy, the editorial director of Brides, the popularity of doughnut walls or mashed potato bars is all because, especially in the past decade, “couples really want to personalize their wedding days.” Which raises a contradiction — how personal can something be when it’s part of a trend and listed on every catering company’s offerings? I saw the potato bar at least one wedding after my sister-in-law’s, and while I was equally excited, at no point did I think either couple had come up with this on their own.
While the wedding has always acted as a formal codification of the legal bonds of marriage, it is also a social event, and as the wedding industry has developed, it’s held a stake in making sure the wedding remains an event. In Brides, Inc., Dr. Vicki Howard notes how in the 19th century, most American weddings were “a panoply of regional and local folk customs,” with only the rich really adhering to the formal wedding, which could be executed by the women in the family and, if they had them, the help of house staff.
But at the same time, America was becoming more urban and industrial, and the middle and working classes “appeared able to afford or emulate the trappings of the formal white wedding,” writes Howard. Now there were more people buying things, so an industry emerged offering more things to buy. Once middle- and working-class families could afford the trappings of costly, formal weddings in the late 19th century, elite tastes shifted, deeming them “a sign of social decline or profligacy.” But the opinions of some ultra-wealthy were no match for middle-class buying power. “Critiques of the big wedding dissipated by the 1920s, just as a nascent wedding industry began introducing a host of invented traditions.”
The profession of wedding caterer rose at the moment when more people began planning large elaborate affairs, but also did not come from homes with their own kitchen staff. Many of the earliest catering companies were run by Black men, and unlike household staff — which would rely on family recipes and the personal tastes of their bosses — the business of catering meant balancing a family’s tastes with making a profit, whether that was by ensuring that the dishes impressed other guests or making something eye-catching and fun out of cheap ingredients (like, say, potatoes). “Dishes that were proven successes helped them achieve their goals, and certain ones thus became ‘traditional’ fare,” writes Howard. Caterers were in a position to “perpetuate certain wedding symbols.”
This was a time when the meaning of marriage was also changing, shifting from being about the establishment of a household to focusing more on love and the unique bond of the couple. By the end of the 20th century, the language around weddings was all about making the day personal rather than slotting yourself into a prescribed set of traditions. Stewart argues it was the 1981 wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer that changed the way a generation thought of weddings — a storybook fantasy, where every whim could be catered to, was now the goal. That was quickly followed by influences from cable television and the internet, from which, per Stewart, an “indulgent tone in wedding media emerged,” blasting through any last reservations about conspicuous spending. Even if the day still involved a white dress, Christian vows, a seated dinner, cake, and dancing, this was your special day, and you were obliged to make an impression on your captive audience. That meant caterers had to chase trends and ensure that they could offer popular foods for a profit, but also sell those culinary creations as something that made the couple appear different from their peers.
What these trends looked like shifted with time, class, and culture. According to Stewart, the Victorian era favored “dainty” foods like peach whip and flummery. A 1924 issue of Good Housekeeping suggests serving something called “chicken salad in a cracker pen.” And Howard writes that, for a time in the early 20th century, no wedding breakfast would have been complete without chicken a la king or lobster Newburg (Good Housekeeping also recommends serving chicken a la king “on toast”). From the 1900s until the 1960s, the wedding cake was commonly a variety of fruit cake, and by then popular finger foods like sandwiches, shrimp cocktail, chicken livers in bacon, and deviled eggs were the trend to serve. Mashed potatoes in a martini glass is a result of caterers having to constantly iterate on these kinds of offerings, making sure meals are different but not too different, fun but broadly pleasing.
Today, Duffy says, that takes the form of miniaturized foods, like one-bite tacos and ice cream cones. D’Arcangelo says he’s seeing a rise in the popularity of foods from the ’80s and ’90s, like “mini homemade Pop-Tarts pops, spiked frozen ice cups, noodles in takeout containers.” And now that social media is part of everyone’s life, delighting guests means thinking about dishes people don’t just want to eat, but also document.
The thing is, these bizarre wedding-only food moments do actually delight. For most of us, weddings are the only formal, catered events we will ever attend, so while caterers and anyone planning a wedding may be deeply aware of the trends, guests may encounter something like a doughnut wall only once in their life. It doesn’t matter if 50 weddings that same day also have a doughnut wall. In that moment, to those guests, it is a unique expression of the couple’s relationship.
There is much to be cynical about with weddings. They are traditions rooted in sexism, and even though same-sex marriage is legal in some places, most weddings hold up monogamous heterosexuality and the nuclear family as the goals of any “respectable” life. And the wedding industry is deeply invested in making couples believe their wedding is insufficient without certain trappings.
But wedding-as-institution, while deeply tied to it, is distinct from wedding-as-feeling. Yes, you can go to city hall in a dress you already own, and often that is a beautiful moment in itself. But that human drive to create ceremony exists for a reason — existence would frankly be too boring without it. Life is marked by dedicating time to a particular value, hosting, eating things you do not eat every day, being able to look back and distinguish one day from all the other days. To raise a martini glass brimming with potatoes and bacon and — as a monkey will one day manage to type — “summon up remembrance of things past.” There is something in there to savor.
Ria Osborne is a Brooklyn-based food photographer by way of London.
Liberty Fennell is a London-born, New York City-based food stylist and recipe developer.
Sonny Ross is an illustrator based in Manchester, U.K. They love drawing food as much as cooking it but not as much as eating it. They work across editorial, publishing, textiles and packaging and in their downtime enjoys such hobbies as: sleeping.
Fact checked by Kelsey Lannin
Copy edited by Leilah Bernstein