When Gramma said, “I’ve made some potato salad”, the proper response was, “I’ll be right over”. It’s a lot of work to make potato salad, and she didn’t just make it for special occasions … it was the occasion. When there was potato salad in the kitchen at the house on 13th Street, it meant the matriarch wanted company, and the matriarch generally got what she wanted.
When Gramma said she made it, it really meant that she supervised while Grampa did the grunt work of peeling and chopping and boiling and mixing. He was her permanent sous chef. They did nearly everything together. She was a natural commander and he was a gentleman and a servant. Their co-dependence was an asset, rather than a cause for counseling, and together they made some great potato salad that attracted family like flies.
If the backyard grill defines summer cooking, potato salad is the definitive side-dish. It is hot-weather comfort food. From a few rather bland staple ingredients and then one or two more for flavor or crunch, comes a dish that’s nourishing, social, and fully satisfying. From simple to complex, from dry to creamy there are as many versions of potato salad as there are cooks making it, and I consider every single one of them to be a blessing, especially:
Big, chunky potato salad
Small, diced potato salad
Smooth & mashed
With red potatoes.
With yellow potatoes.
With peeled potatoes or with the skins still on
Really eggy potato salad
Really potatoey potato salad
Dry potato salad - not too much goo
Runny potato salad - lots of mayo
Stuffed into garden-fresh tomatoes
With garlic bread
On a hot dog
With green olives
With black olives
With pickle relish
The hot German kind with vinegar and bacon (although it really is a different thing)
Aileen’s potato salad
Laurene’s potato salad
Dennis’s potato salad
Not too mustardy
A little horseradishy
Subtle and mild
A little sprinkle of paprika
With smoky chipotle pepper
Without flies (but with flies is OK, too, if eating outdoors)
On a bed of crisp iceberg lettuce
rolled up in romaine leaves
Cold potato salad on top of hot hash browns and brown gravy, Lord have mercy
On a bun with a hamburger
On top of a ham steak
Always, always, always with potato chips crushed over the top. Always.
We made some potato salad at our house this week. MSL and I worked together on it, but in a different way than Grampa and Gramma did. By the time we got married thirteen years ago, we were both independent adults who owned our own homes and managed our own lives: we each did our own laundry, shoveled our own snow, paid our own bills and made our own potato salad, so codependence has never been an issue for us. She cooked the eggs, peeled the potatoes, started the water boiling, and got out of the kitchen. I took it from there, chopping the potatoes, peeling the eggs, and deciding which of the other things in the fridge should go into the salad.
There really was no recipe, I just followed my instincts, which is dangerous as I’m a better eater than cook. My problem is that I have no sense of proportion. I like eggs, so how many should I use? All of them, of course.
The salad turned out moderately chunky, moderately eggy and just on the creamy side of average. We had an overabundance of red and yelo potatoes in the weekly box from our farmer, so we used both kinds. Chopped onions: red, white and green. Eggs. Garlic scapes. Real mayo, not “salad dressing”. Salt and pepper, a dollop of Dijon mustard and for a little extra snap, green olives and pimentos sliced small.
It took long enough to mix it all up that I had a backache when I was finished. I don’t know if we’ll share it or if we’ll just have it for dinner the next night or two, but the process of making it reminds me that when someone offers to share potato salad, what they’re sharing is not just food - they’re sharing the result of a couple hours of hard, physical labor. And whether you like the potato salad or not, it is an honor to be given something that takes so much effort to create - like when an artist gives you a painting, or a knitter gives you a new scarf - accept it with grace and thankfulness, because the point isn’t the painting or the scarf, it’s that someone cares enough about you to have made it.
So when Gramma called, I’d go without hesitation and eat the potato salad. She’d be rooting around in the cupboards and the fridge looking for other things to serve, giving orders to Grampa to bring the cookies, pour the milk, find a serving spoon. And around it all we’d share the family news, discuss the family business and talk about what was happening in our lives. Even though we spent all day together under the same roof at the family printing company, and even though I was an adult with my own place to live, it was still special to go to Gramma’s house for potato salad.
I might be romantic or nostalgic or maybe just old enough to be reflecting about such things, but as I think about all of those people who have made the effort to see that I am fed, I am thankful for them, because they have made me possible - they are a part of who I am.