The potato has long been Australia’s favourite vegetable. In early colonial days, stews relied on the starchy tuber to bulk out the meagre meat supply. The potato’s popularity persisted. In 1893, Dr Philip Muskett wrote despairingly that if the potato and the cabbage were taken away, Australia would be almost bereft of vegetables. In my youth, potatoes were an essential part of every main meal – served boiled, roasted (in dripping), mashed or as an essential ingredient in a genuine Cornish pasty. There was a lot of peeling and scraping involved. Then along came Deb Instant Mashed Potato, promising to make the housewife’s task a whole lot easier.
The world’s first instant mashed potato product was in granule form. Developed by a US company R. T. French in 1952, it was on the market by the mid-1950s. Instant mashed potato flakes came later and were an improvement on the granules. Most sources attribute their invention to a Canadian food scientist, Edward Asselbergs, who patented his process in 1961. However, an Ottowa historian claims that Asselbergs’s potatoes were neither granules nor flakes, both of which were already on the market. The actual story remains unclear.
What does seem clear is that the first instant mashed potatoes in Australia were promoted as “direct from America” under the brand name, Royco. They were not actually imported, but the idea came from America as the result of a visit by Fred Kleimeyer, an electrician from Lowood, Queensland. After visiting relatives in Philadelphia, Fred came home, bought a disused butter factory and converted it to manufacture bean-like mash flakes.
A television commercial, possibly from 1960, asserts that Royco mash came recommended by Betty King, an entirely fictional home economist invented by a marketing company called World Brands Pty Ltd. Betty King, billed as “Australia’s leading home economist” also endorsed Deb when the brand was launched in 1962 after the Royco operation was sold to Unilever.
Deb Instant Mashed Potato was being advertised in the Australian Women’s Weekly in 1962, and an article in the Melbourne Age in that year has an exciting illustration of the production process. Despite this, Museums Victoria suggests that Deb was first manufactured by Unilever at its factory in Ballarat, Victoria, from 1963 and purports to have in its collection the first pack off the production line.
It seems the launch of Deb was a success. Perhaps it was helped by Betty King’s ringing endorsement. As she gushed in the 1962 advertisement:
Good nutrition is important. That’s why Deb is so wonderful. You enjoy the pick of Australia’s finest potato crops in Deb Instant Mashed Potato. The flakes of pure potato retain all the delicate flavour cells intact. Just follow the directions on the packet to make real mashed potato, in seconds. Creamy-white and fluffy – the finest you ever tasted. Try easy-to-make Deb soon.
Deb was demonstrated in supermarkets. The original product was well received, prompting Unilever to launch a line extension: Deb with Onion. Betty weighed in again, saying “After the hearty welcome you gave Deb Instant Mashed Potato, I know you’ll want to try new Deb with Onion pieces”. Both varieties are still available, now part of Unilever’s Continental range.
My husband informs me that Deb was a go-to product when he went hiking with the Scouts. No surprises there. He also informs me that it was a favoured “stoner” food back in the 1970s. Minimum effort required, as long as you could focus when you poured the stuff into the boiling water. The Urban Dictionary is scornful, defining instant mashed potatoes as:
A vile, ungodly creation with no equal. The ultimate torture weapon of suburban mother’s [sic] who don’t like to peel potatoes or work late. A plague upon suburbia that leaves only hungry children and carnage in it’s wake. A “food” dish from hell itself which can both lacerate the inside of your mouth with water-resistant flakes and also dribble out your mouth as you choke on it and beg for the gentle release of death.
However, Deb Instant Mashed Potato still has its fans. One of my Facebook correspondents wrote:
I use it all the time, and buy a plain pack. I live alone and there is nothing like it, coming home after a hard day at work, for pouring into a bowl, mixing with boiled water, then topping with whatever. Sauerkraut, leftovers, gravy… Dinner within minutes. Nothing wrong with it, and I feel no shame in sometimes not being prepared to stand at the kitchen bench, peeling potatoes, waiting for them to be cooked, then getting out the masher. After 50 years of cooking dinner every single night for a family, this is one shortcut that gives me joy!
She’s not alone. An industry website predicts that the market for instant mashed potatoes will continue to grow. So, while the idea of “instant” food may not appeal to everyone, there’s clearly a place for Deb in years to come.