Potato salad: Always a winner in this family

We’ll be pulling off the impossible in two weeks — feeding two groups in different locations on the campus. (Did I mention the camp’s food staff is my wife and I? Thank God for volunteers.)

So while 250 or so guests are being served a Valentine’s Day dinner, the 50 teens spending the weekend there will be getting a more restrained, chef-friendly meal of sandwiches and cold salads. Truly, it’s the only way we can pull off both.

But I don’t feel like I’m cheating anybody, because it’s a chance to serve one of my favorite dishes: my grandmother’s potato salad.

I wrote an ode to it — and my grandmother — almost 10 years ago in The Record — a story that I reprinted on the paper’s food blog three years ago. I never get tired of sharing it:

The queen of my family’s kitchen, my grandmother, clearly has King Midas’ touch for turning everyday foods into masterpieces.

Potatoes, onions, and beef are transformed into a savory sailor’s stew. A handful of pickles and chunks of leftover Christmas ham tossed into the antique hand-grinder emerge as the ultimate sandwich filling. And you should see what she can do with spaghetti, a cup of ketchup, and a can of tomato soup.

Ruth Pitcher turns 80 on Friday, the same day she’ll celebrate her 61st anniversary, and we’ll ring in the milestone the same way as every year. She’ll spend the morning in her cozy kitchen preparing a monstrous family picnic, and we’ll eagerly inhale it.

For generations – four children, 14 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren with another on the way – our family has shared the same meal, with the big pot of baked beans topped with strips of crispy bacon, dozens of deviled eggs, Watergate salad replete with small marshmallows and bits of pistachio, and a pineapple and cream cheese salad.

But the essence of these summertime gatherings is her potato salad.

My grandmother has an expert touch with potatoes that are perfectly tender and onion so finely minced that it practically melts on impact. She adds nearly a dozen hard-cooked eggs, but the dish isn’t eggy; she’s generous with the mayo, but it’s not tangy or goopy.

Her secret here, as in everything she cooks, is simplicity and modesty.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Billy,” she says, smiling and shaking her head. “There’s nothing special about it.”

She begins with eight to 10 Russet potatoes, quartered, and boiled until fork-tender. Once cooled to room temperature, they’re cut into 3/4-inch pieces and mixed with eight to 10 hard-cooked eggs and a bit of finely minced onion. Hellmann’s mayonnaise is added by the spoonful until the potatoes shine and the mixture is bound together. Her only seasoning is salt and pepper, to taste. She serves it immediately.

A small wooden recipe box atop her refrigerator stores dozens of family classics, handwritten in her beautiful script on well-worn index cards – she rarely cooks without written instructions – but you won’t find this recipe. After 80 years, it’s the only one she’s committed to memory, and she refuses to spoil its simplicity with trendy additives like fresh dill or pimentos.

The recipe is as much of a tradition as the way our family shares it.

“It’s exactly how my mother made it,” she said.

 

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