What is your family eating on the Fourth? Families have been torn asunder by variations in holiday traditions, especially by what goes on the buffet. While we’re celebrating the Great Melting Pot that is the Land of the Free, I’ll bet that you’ll encounter some cultural variation of potato salad on that table. (And, I hope, it will be properly refrigerated.) A hamburger is a hamburger is a hamburger, but how our mothers or grandmothers concocted their potato salad is often debatable. At least, it was in my family.
One of the tricks of creating and maintaining a happy relationship with another person is accepting their eating habits and preferences, and I’m not talking about meat-vs-meatless. We may grow up liking green pepper in our meatloaf and wind up with someone who just can’t abide it. You may grow up with mayo, while your beloved’s life was spent with Miracle Whip. And in my case, I don’t like either one. I was an innocent bystander in my family’s Mayonnaise Wars.
I was a really picky eater as a kid (and am still fussy). I still eat my hamburgers plain, with nothing on them, “just meat and the bun,” as The Veterinarian used to explain to the faceless speaker at the drive-thru. No mustard on my hot dog, even if it’s one of Detroit’s beloved “Coney Islands.” No mayo slathered on my Philly cheesesteak — or the cheese, either, for that matter. Just meat and grilled onions. Bottles of ketchup and mustard last for months at my house, unless The Daughter is spending a lot of time there. I’ve started writing the date opened on the top of my mayonnaise for my own safety, and I always open a new jar, if I’m preparing food for friends or strangers.
The Veterinarian accepted my taste (and texture) preferences and relished (pun-intended) taking anything off my plate that I wasn’t going to eat. He was a mayo eater, on anything, tuna salad, deviled eggs, hamburgers, cheesesteaks. My family swears by Miracle Whip, in tuna salad, deviled eggs, and egg salad. My Sister was always in charge of the deviled eggs at Easter, which meant she made two batches, one with Miracle Whip for her and My Mother, and one with mayo for The Daughter and The Veterinarian. I found them both abhorrent (the dressings, not my family) and accept that something creamy must be used to bind tuna salad, pasta salad, and, most of all, my celebrated Chicken Tarragon Salad. I just don’t want to taste or feel it.
Learning to cook means that you taste as you go. Once you’re an experienced cook, sometimes you can even smell when something’s seasoned correctly or even done. I can see and smell when broccoli or asparagus is done. I can see and smell when the dressing for my celebrated Chicken Tarragon salad is correct, because I can smell the appropriate amount of tarragon. I’ll give you the recipe for my Chicken Tarragon Salad another time, but, first, let’s play with our food.
Some dishes just don’t need a recipe, and potato salad is one of them. I didn’t grow up eating potato salad because the only thing in it that I liked were the potatoes and the chopped celery. Not only do I not eat mayo, but I don’t eat egg salad because I also don’t eat eggs. Nor do I eat green pepper, raw or cooked, because it talks to me all night long instead of making the long, slow journey through my GI tract. I avoid raw onion, unless it is really sweet, like a Vidalia. Maui sweets are only barely acceptable.
The Veterinarian liked potato salad, and, what else are you going to serve with all-American hamburgers, hot dogs, and baked beans? I taught myself to make potato salad by recognizing the look and smell of the dressing. I would mix together mayo and a little prepared mustard and make him taste it. He would say, “More mustard” or “More mayo” or whatever. Eventually, I could tell by the smell and the color when I had achieved the correct balance. When I could do that, I could make any quantity without measuring anything. It was the balance that made the difference. “Do I smell only mayo?” Add a little mustard. “Is the smell too sharp?” Add a little mayo.
With July 4th right down the block, you should experiment and make your own potato salad to please yourself. What kind of potatoes do you like? I prefer russet/Idaho for almost every potato dish. I like their flavor and texture. You may like redskin or new potatoes or even fingerlings, although I would stay away from the dark purple ones with a creamy dressing, because they look disgusting together. Scrub your potatoes and poke them with a fork. Starting them in cold water, bring to a boil and simmer them in their skins until a sharp knife inserted into the center meets resistance. You have to practice this one, because cooking times are dependent on the thickness and type of potatoes, 20-30 minutes. Properly cooked potatoes for salad need to be stiffer than potatoes to be mashed, riced, or baked, or they will completely collapse in the dressing. When done, remove from the hot water and immediately rinse in cold water. Drain and finish cooling on a rack.
When cool, you can peel the potatoes or just cut them into reasonably bite-sized chunks, small enough to fit into your mouth, big enough to be identifiable as potatoes. Set aside.
Here comes the fun part, the dressing. In a large bowl, combine mayonnaise and prepared mustard until you like the flavor. For six large potatoes, I would start with one cup of your favorite chilled mayo or Miracle Whip and add one teaspoon of mustard at a time until you like the flavor. Do you like the mustardy-taste? Add more. It’s like chemistry class, but you’re unlikely to cause an explosion (unless you don’t keep that mayo refrigerated).
Here’s where your potato salad becomes yours. You can add any or all of the following ingredients. Beyond the mayo/Miracle Whip thing, The Veterinarian liked crisply fried bacon bits in his potato salad. My Mother likes finely chopped green pepper. I always made my potato salad to suit me, not them, and used mayo, bacon bits, one mashed hard-boiled egg (because I hate eggs but acknowledge their contribution), chopped celery, minced sweet onion, and finely chopped red bell pepper (which isn’t bitter and doesn’t talk to me all night long). I also season mine with coarse sea salt, freshly ground mixed peppercorns (black, white, green, and red), a little celery salt, and a little onion powder. The latter two further disguise the mayo taste, for me.
Again, you need to taste it as you go along, and taste it just before you serve it, as the flavors will blend as they sit in the refrigerator. I only like just enough dressing to hold all the veggies together. If you like your potato salad creamier after you’ve tossed it all together, in a separate bowl, stir together a little more dressing and add gradually to the salad.
I’ve also seen people use fresh dill, celery seed, shredded carrots and radishes, and chopped pickle. I even make an elegant warm potato salad that uses a little truffle oil as a condiment. You toss warm dark purple and white fingerling potato chunks with a vinaigrette made with Champagne vinegar, a little Dijon-style mustard, 1 Tablespoon of minced shallots, and a very light olive oil, then drizzle on the truffle oil just to give it flavor. The warm potatoes soak up the dressing and look swanky on a plate with a steak or that grilled chicken that I wrote about last week. But it’s still potato salad, no matter how you gussy it up, and for the celebration of our nation’s declaration of independence, I think we ought to keep it humble, just potatoes and mayonnaise or Miracle Whip or whatever.
In The Mayonnaise Wars, love eventually conquered all. For The Veterinarian’s memorial service, My Sister made 12 dozen deviled eggs, all with mayonnaise, in his honor. It was the first platter emptied on the long reception tables with his favorite foods, including expensive French cheeses, which just goes to show you that we are a nation of folk who take comfort in the humble, so who am I to complain? Life is good (mostly). Soli Deo Gloria!