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Food + Cooking

Desperately Seeking Potato Salad

When your only real “family recipes” tend to involve cans of crushed pineapple, this perfect picnic dish is a rare gem worth hunting down.
family potato salad

Like many of us, I don’t come from the sort of family that passes down treasured recipes from generation to generation—not unless you count the stack of yellowed index cards I inherited from my grandmother a few years before her death, boasting such gems as Coke Salad (one box cherry Jell-O, one can crushed pineapple, two cups title ingredient) and Dump Cake (one can cherry pie filling, one package yellow cake mix, more crushed pineapple). But as my grandmother never actually made those recipes, reading them is like stumbling across a museum exhibit: Relics of Mid-Century Mountain West American Cooking, ca. 1955. Interesting, to be sure, but not, in any fundamental sense, hers—and therefore, not mine.

But despite the penchant for fruit cocktail and canned tamales that emerged in her later years, there was one thing my grandmother always did make from scratch, and to perfection: potato salad, the centerpiece of every family picnic. Just how much did I love that salad? So much that when my grandmother passed away three years ago, the only heirloom I requested was the ancient, hideous, mustard-colored Tupperware bowl in which she always served it.

Mind you, I didn’t procure the thing that really mattered: the recipe itself. As I said, we just aren’t that sort of family.

Then again, why not? It’s probably too late, droned the counterpoint in my head. But next thing you know, I was scribbling down everything I could remember: russet potatoes, sliced hard-boiled eggs, Best Foods mayonnaise (that’s Hellman’s to you East Coasters), a final dusting of paprika—these I was sure of. From there, it got trickier. A little mustard? I thought so. But if so, what kind? Grandma was most definitely a French’s gal, so why did I have visions of Dijon? And pickle relish—didn’t that figure somewhere? Celery and salt, or celery salt? White onion or green? How could I remember so little about something I loved so much?

It was time to call for backup. My brother, Alex, proved even more flummoxed than I was. “I have a number of potato salads floating around in my head,” he said wistfully. “But I can’t remember if Grandma’s was the mayonnaise-heavy wet kind. Or maybe it was slightly dry, and she served it lukewarm?” Next came my cousin Brad (who, when left to his own devices, has been known to happily subsist on cereal). “I seem to recall Grandma always serving potato salad in a big ornate glass bowl,” he wrote. “And it was always cold.”

Brad’s younger brother Jason, the Ernie to his Bert, was a better bet. Thank God there’s a chef in the family, I thought. Total culinary recall, here we come. And yet: “I just don’t remember anything crazy interesting about Grandma’s potato salad,” he wrote back. Another dead end.

Finally, as with all things, I turned to my mother. “Baking potatoes cut into pieces after being boiled, cooled, and peeled,” she responded crisply. “Celery, celery salt or seeds, chopped green onion, lots of salt and pepper, mixing it all with mayonnaise, but not too much. Sometimes a bit of dill pickle.” Bingo! We had a blueprint.

So it was with no small sense of satisfaction that, after an initial test run, I proudly turned up to a recent family picnic laden with all the fixings for Grandma’s salad. My Uncle Doug greeted me at the door with an impish grin. “I’ve got your secret weapon!” he exclaimed. Glowing alarmingly bright in his hand was a bottle of French’s mustard. “Oh,” I said doubtfully. “I thought I would use Dijon?” Doug threw his hands up in the air and roared with laughter. “Dijon? Grandma?” Guess not, then.

The condiment drama continued with the mayonnaise. As I carefully measured a cupful, Jason leaned over my shoulder, tut-tutting. “No way Grandma would have used that much mayo,” he said. “Just you wait,” I responded through gritted teeth.

After decorating the top with slices of hard-boiled egg (“Where’d you get that idea?” asked Jason, as my mother and uncle quickly shushed him), I carried the salad to the table. The moment of truth had arrived.

With the first bite, there it was. The cathedral-like hush of the redwoods, the thin air, the thwap of the heavy plastic tablecloth as Grandma shook it out, the scratch of the wooden picnic bench, me racing around after my big brother and cousins, desperate not to miss a thing. Every picnic, every summer. I—we—had done it.

“This is fantastic,” said Brad. “Can you give me the recipe? I think even I could make it.” “Um, dude, you’d have to learn to boil an egg first,” said Jason, without missing a beat. He turned to me and waved his fork. “And the celery slices should be a bit bigger.”

Just like Grandma’s potato salad, some things never really change.

Grandma Cleo’s Potato Salad

Makes Enough for a Picnic

Scrub (but do not peel) 4 pounds russet potatoes. Cut any large potatoes in half. Boil until just tender, then drain and let cool for several minutes before peeling, dicing, and placing in large serving bowl.

In the meantime, hard-boil four eggs, drain, cool slightly, and peel.

While the other ingredients are cooking, finely chop one cup each of green onion and dill pickle; chop one cup of celery into half-moons (not too small or you’ll have Jason on your case). Mix together in small bowl and set aside.

In another small bowl, stir together 1 cup mayonnaise (preferably Best Foods), 1 tsp. French’s mustard (or Dijon if no one’s looking), and ½ tsp. each of salt, pepper, and celery salt.

Scatter chopped onion mixture over potatoes. Pour mayonnaise dressing on top and stir gently. If salad seems dry, add a bit more mayonnaise. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Thinly slice eggs lengthwise and arrange in decorative pattern on top of salad. Dust lightly with paprika and a touch more celery salt.