Dinner & a Movie: ‘Dead Poets Society’ with Goat Cheese & Garlic Mashed Potatoes
Serving up Recipes and Reels Each Week
The first time I saw Dead Poets Society, I was in seventh grade and it was the end-of-year film in English class. We paused when class let out at an hour and 40 minutes, and I was bawling. When Ms. Whitaker started playing the film again the next day, again: instant tears. But don’t fear – Dead Poets Society is the kind of beautiful, gratifying cry that comes from a piece of art brushing up against your immortality. In the context of Robin Williams’ passing, it’s even more special. This Dinner & a Movie couples my favorite of Mr. Williams’ roles with mashed potatoes, cooked with goat cheese and roasted garlic. If you watch carefully at dinner when Mr. Keating and Mr. McAllister are discussing the nuances of cynicism vs. realism, you’ll see that Mr. Keating is serving himself a small mountain of mashed potatoes. With this recipe, you’ll want to, too.
Dead Poets Society is set in an overwhelmingly and homogeneously white preparatory school for well-to-do boys in gorgeous 1950s Vermont. The school encourages students to adhere to the “four pillars” of tradition, honor, discipline and excellence. Everyone is alike, and Welton Academy proudly sends almost all of its identical graduates on identical paths to the Ivy League. It looks like that’s where our main characters are headed, too, until Mr. Keating, the new English teacher, gives them an existential wake-up call. Fascinated by his departure from traditional teaching methods, the students resurrect the Dead Poets Society after reading about it in one of Mr. Keating’s old yearbooks.
Most people I’ve spoken to love the film, but Roger Ebert claims, not without support, that the film does not do what it aims to do – that while it professes to instill a love of poetry, the students’ fervor is the result of a cult of personality fixated on Mr. Keating. And, as Ebert points out, “there are scenes in which [Mr. Williams’] stage persona punctures the character.” Ebert’s also mad that it’s 1959 and these kids haven’t heard of beat poets like Kerouac and Ginsberg -though they’ve barely heard of free will. I can see where this criticism comes from, but retort that we see characters adopt poetry into their lives in major ways outside Mr. Keating’s scope: to romance their love interests, as in Charlie and Knox’s storylines, or to delve into a role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Neil’s case.
Poetry’s presence in the film is powerful and vital. It doesn’t hurt that a substantial percentage of what we hear the characters read is Walt Whitman, who is always a stirring and electric force. If you’ve ever had a professor who was really wired about what they were teaching, so much that the lessons burst out of their subject matter and spilled into your heart and your life, it won’t bother you that Dead Poets Society veers into maudlin territory. You’ll be standing on your desk by the end of the film.
Potatoes – about 1 big one for each person you’re serving, unless you want leftovers. And who doesn’t want leftover mashed potatoes? You’ll need lots of potatoes.
Broth – chicken or veggie
Butter – more than seems reasonable
a head of garlic
salt and pepper
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Cut the top off your head of garlic, place on a metal tray, and drizzle with olive oil. Roast until it’s golden brown and soft, about 30 minutes – don’t let it go too crunchy.
While that’s cooking, scrub your potatoes and peel them if desired. Cut them into equally-sized chunks and boil in salted water until they’re fork-tender. Drain the potatoes and let them cool.
Using your potato masher, squish the potatoes and squeeze the cloves of garlic out of the paper and into the potatoes. Squish them too, with the goat cheese. Do yourself a favor and throw the whole little log of goat cheese in there.
Here’s where it gets fun. Mashed potatoes are a continually evolving experiment. Add your other ingredients – broth, herbs, salt and pepper, butter – until you’re happy with what you’ve got. Enjoy!