You pay good money for an artisanal stuffed dachsund at a chic art-village boutique, you mail it to your beloved nephew, you picture him embracing it with big happy eyes and a bubble over his head saying, “You are my favorite aunt.” You visit months later to find the dachsund is untouched, but the $3.49 rubber frog you picked up at the 7-Eleven the last time you visited is squeezed and chewed to within an inch of its life. There’s no bubble over the little guy’s head, either.
I suspect my reaction to this phenomenon is something like the way my Mom used to feel about her potato salad.
“You don’t want my Sour Cream Apple Cake? What about this great Bon Appetit recipe for Pan Asian Cole Slaw? You want the potato salad? Again?”
No thank you, no thank you, yes please.
Sometimes you’re stuck with the tried-and-true, however bored you might be with it. And Mom, for the record, I want to tell you that this is OK when it comes to your potato salad.
Potato. Onion. Vinegar. Mayo. And a few basic but critical ingredients in just the right proportions. Boil. Dice. Toss. The best. For going on 50 years now.
All the Golembeski daughters had their staples at the family picnics, the things they’d be expected to pack in the ice coolers without being asked. They could turn them out in their sleep (or, I imagine, when sleep deprived). If Aunt Marlene did not bring her elbow-macaroni-with-shrimp salad and if Aunt Dot did not bring her potato salad, the disappointment would be palpable.
Mind you, I grew up at a time when a fresh basil leaf was exotic. If it wasn’t in a can, a jar, or a Green Giant frozen-food box, I would not know what to make of it. Creative cuisine meant making chip dip without Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix. At some time in my high school years, though, I sensed change afoot. A copy of Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cook Book showed up. Someone introduced red-skinned potatoes to one of our family picnics, with the skins still on! Mom even started putting wine into food, for God’s sake.
When I moved out on my own, I started getting invited to picnics of my own. I am not sure when the inevitable dish-to-pass question first came up, but I know that my reflexive answer was: Mom’s potato salad. I knew exactly how to make it. I could shop for the ingredients without thinking. It was always a snappy solution. And you know what? It was a hit! People started expecting it.
In more recent years – OK, decades — picnic activities have fallen off, my potato-salad fans have moved on, and I guess it’s fair to say I’ve tried rebranding myself. I felt I should evolve from Picnic Dish-to-Pass to Dinner Party Cuisine-to-Impress (“We’re thinking of regional Mexican next Saturday, does Oaxacan mole sound OK?”). But a call came a few weeks back, my first in ages: A neighborhood backyard picnic. Smoked pork shoulder, cole slaw, the works. I said I’d bring Mom’s potato salad before it occurred to me that the unthinkable had happened, and I no longer remembered how to make it.
Shockingly, it didn’t take long to find the “recipe,” stuffed into a folder that was shoved to the back of a closet shelf. There you go, scrawled onto the back of a Niagara Gazette memo slip, I’m sure as I was talking to her on the phone at work: Mom’s Potato Salad.
Potato. Onion. Vinegar. Mayo. And a few basic but critical ingredients in just the right proportions.
I boiled. I diced. I tossed. The muscle memory came back as I put each potato into my palm, took up a blunt-edged dinner knife, and cubed. I had jotted down proportions, but I knew they were rough. I had to use instinct. Was a time it would turn out just right after a few tastes, but that takes practice. It had been so many years that I didn’t trust my judgment about the celery seed, the sugar, the salt. I was just hoping for approximately right.
I tasted, adjusted, and thought – not bad.
I think everyone like it. It seemed to stand up well to the red-skinned competition someone else brought along. I think I’ll make another batch this weekend. I figure it’s my time of life to embrace my brand, even if it’s just white-skinned potatoes and mayo. I’m OK with that.
Thanks, Mom. And happy birthday!