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?