A Memory of Potato Salad

I am making potato salad this morning, from a cookbook that is so tattered and well-used that I have to rubberband it together to keep all the pages in.  The cookbook is one I’ve mentioned here before, Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, given to me by my grandmother when I married (my now-ex) thirty years ago.  Her handwriting on the fly leaf is fading, but visible, and I feel her with me when I cook.

In fact, this morning as I assemble the ingredients for what really is one of the BEST potato salads of all time, I’m suddenly and inexplicable transported to a day that must well over a decade ago.  My grandmother and my mother-in-law, whom we all called Mama sat in my blue-painted dining room together. They had not had much time to chat before, though I knew how alike they were—both devoted to God, both beauties. That afternoon, they were both quite well-dressed in the way of Southern Women, wearing skirts and good jewelry, their hair nicely done.  One white, one black, both of them exquisitely beautiful, even at their advanced ages.  They sat spoiling Sasha the terrible terrier who charmed every old woman in that room and then spent the evening farting pungently and snoring in pure happiness from all the tidbits they fed her.

Why do I remember that day, in particular? I must have made this potato salad fifty times, a hundred.  But this is the day that rises up, whole and shimmering. The sun shone through the lace curtains and music was playing from the kitchen and I was making potato salad with Fern, Mama’s sister. (My memory stutters suddenly—was it Fern? Or Vivian? Which sisters came with her? I narrow in on that kitchen I so loved, with two windows, and that day sun was shining through the elm leaves. Fern, so tidy and smaller than the others. Yes, that’s who it was.  She taught me to how to boil the potatoes whole, then let them cool so the peeling is easier.

I don’t remember the reason for the gathering—was it an anniversary? Someone’s birthday? Why did Mama and her sister come all the way to Colorado? It was the only time they made the trip. The reason escapes me.  I don’t remember who else was there.  Only Mama and my grandmother and Sasha and Fern.

I see their laughing faces.  I see Sasha begging with her fu Manchu beard and bright eyes—a dog who lived sixteen years and it wasn’t quite enough still.  I have the sense that I knew my marriage was doomed already, that there had already been a lot of trouble, but my husband was there, too, barbequing maybe.  Almost certainly in charge of the music.

Today, my potatoes are ready and I set them in the sink and run cold water over them.  The potato salad today is for my nephew, home for a couple of weeks after joining the Navy.  I wonder how it will all look to him now, after eight months away.  My parents will be there, and I’ll bring my granddaughter back home with me, to sleep over so her parents can go to the fair.  Will I remember this day, a decade from now when I make this recipe?

Who knows? Not me.  What I do know is that the potato salad is delicious, that Mama and Grandma would be thrilled with my grandmotherness—and my darling Amara– now, and that Fern would be pleased to know that I remember her showing me that trick.  Recipes are tradition and love and the very ordinariness of repetition.

I hope you’re cooking—or eating–something today that makes you remember people you love.

Do you have a dish that conjures up memories of people you love, or a day you like to remember? 

16 thoughts on “A Memory of Potato Salad

  1. Thanks for this beautiful scene and sharing your memory, Barbara. I grabbed my copy of Spoonbread & Strawberry Wine from the shelf and looked up your potato salad — though there is an infamous potato salad in our family already. My mother-in-law is famous for hers, and it is truly fabulous.

    One of the sweetest food memories I have is of meeting my father in a little town near Rochester when I was pregnant. That day, I ate one of the best desserts — perfect raspberries, fatter than even I was, in a puddle of cream. We purchased an ornament for my Christmas tree, even though it was July: a pair of pink baby booties. He died less than two years later, when his granddaughter was learning how to walk.

  2. My food memories are scattered…more a montage than a clear, crisp memory: the chocolate shake my mother made with her old Westinghouse mixer (that sadly disappeared a few summers ago when I left it at the lake). This was back when my parents still had smiles for each other. Later, my grandmother’s meat patties that she’d make whenever I came for dinner. She–like my mother–was not much of a cook, but her meat patties were heavenly. And then there’s last night’s chicken with tomatillo sauce made from the garden. Tomatillos, why is it I never knew what you were before? Oh, so good, so very good.

    I’m making potato salad today and don’t have a copy of your cookbook and I’m dying to know what the recipe is! For my potato salad I will add onion (probably spring onions since I have them), mayo, dijon, egg, salt, and pepper. I could add just a bit of my (homemade) zucchini relish just to see what that does to it. Hmmm.

  3. I found it! At least I think I did. The NYT printed it back in the 90’s. Here it is for anyone else who is interested:

  4. Barbara Samuel

    Yes, Gina! That’s the recipe!

    Oh, tomatillos! Last year, I grew ONE tomatillo and it produced so much fruit I vowed never again. We drowned in them, but you’re right–so utterly delicious! And I love the visual of the Westinghouse mixer and the chocolate shake. Mmmm.

    Love that story, Teri, about your father and the raspberries and the pink booties. Sweetness.

  5. It was delicious! I wasn’t able to do it exactly (no celery and my potatoes were cold by the time I sat down to make it) but it was devoured by my guests. Next time I’ll do it right.

    I love the visual of drowning in tomatillos. 🙂

  6. DeNise

    Thank you for a lovely visual. For me, it is always my mother’s Banana Pudding. Always made in the perfectly sized cut-glass bowl, the meringue toasted to perfection under the broiler. In my late teens the bowl broke under the broiler and I thought we’d both cry. Me because the pudding was spoiled and her because the bowl was gone.

  7. We made Christmas cookies, only one year, with my mother. Our house was a battleground, and I think that must have been the only year she had the energy.

    But for many years after my parents divorced, we grew up, and they passed away, my sister,brother and I came together before Christmas. I’d take out my Mother’s Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook (it’s held with rubber bands too, Barbara,) and made the same recipe.

    After my Sister passed away, my brother’s family and I still do it – and when we do, the kitchen is full of laughter, memories, and loving ghosts.

  8. Nina Tulsi

    My Husband made me some holy basil herb together with a Tulsi Tea he prepared a nice looking salad which made me and my kids to ask more for the next weekend

  9. When I was about ten my mother taught me to make a fruit sponge that was a favorite family dessert, especially in winter. The oven I first learned to bake it in was an old-fashioned wood-fired stove, and that seemed to give it an extra special something.
    We used our own fruit that we’d bottled (canned?) in summer — sometimes apple, apple and plum, apple and rhubarb, but my favorite was always apricots. I’d line the base of a cake tin with round, glossy bottled apricot halves and some of the juice, then make the sponge cake — to this day I know the recipe without thinking — it came out a little heavier than normal sponge. I’d mix it up and pour the mix over the apricots and bake it in the oven. Golden cake on top, hot, delicious fruit beneath. We’d serve it at Sunday lunch with hot home-made custard and maybe some cream or icecream.

  10. Barbara

    Lovely, Anne. That sounds a little like a cobbler. I’m not sure I know what a sponge is,exactly.

  11. It’s cake, Barbara — sponge cake is a really light, fluffy cake. It’s a fairly traditional cake people here make for a fancy afternoon tea, and is served filled with cream and jam. It’s rarely iced (frosted) — probably too light to ice.
    There’s a pics and a recipe here:

    The dessert I made is cake baked over the apricots, but it’s not as light as sponge. There’s a pic here of something similar — it’s more cakey than a cobbler, I think. The cake is a few inches thick all over.

  12. Barbara Samuel

    Ah, I bet I know somebody who would really like me to make that! 🙂 Thanks, Anne.

  13. stephanie

    My brother and I remember a snowy week one year — I think I was 8 or 9 — when my mom, clearly at the end of her tether trying to entertain us and probably at the bottom of the fridge pulled out the meat grinder and attached it to the counter and then fed into it bacon, chopped onions and Velveeta. Then she put it on sandwich bread and broiled it in the toaster oven. Oh, man. Just thinking about it is making me drool. The salty bacon and tangy onions and melty cheese-product, which we’d never had in the house before or after, made the most amazing combination.

    I told my mom about this memory once and she just laughed. She clearly had a different perspective on the event. I also find it amazing that independent of one another my brother and I both have such strong memories of this meal. I’ve tried to replicate this but it’s never been the same. I think the meat grinder is key and I’m not that invested in it to want to get all icky or to have to clean it all up:)

  14. Barbara

    Stephanie, that really does sound like a taste-Fest for a kid!

  15. Linda

    I loved my grandma Pearl potato salad When I was little I got duck my graham cracker in coffee Also My grandpa would tell the story of me with bread and peanut butter Thank you fur reviving my memories of My grandparents I loved dearly

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