Potato Salad: More Than Picnic Food

A memorable picnic needs homemade potato salad. Perfectly cooked potatoes. Hard-boiled eggs cut in chunks. And creamy dressing with zip. Multiple textures meld, delivering one delicious bite after another.

Mmmm, mmm, …. mmm. Just thinking about it makes my taste buds tingle.

My mother, Helen Yorkgitis, considered potato salad her signature picnic food. She cooked potatoes with the skins still on because she thought that helped them retain vitamins. After peeling hard-boiled eggs, she separated each yolk from the white, chopped them separately, and added them separately. After mixing her ingredients together with a creamy dressing, she wiped off any smears from the side of the bowl, and before serving, she dusted the top layer with paprika.

Mom’s meticulous approach produced a salad with distinct notes. I could taste each piece of potato, each chunk of egg. It wasn’t mushy like some potato salads. It wasn’t overly spicy. It was smooth but crisp. No wonder, Mom’s potato salad was in high demand.

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Mom was very particular about many things as a cook and hostess — from making potato salad to setting a table.  Case in point: the placement of forks on the table during this birthday celebration for my brother Chip, two years before I was born. I like how this photo revealed so many emotions among my siblings. What was upsetting my oldest sister? What made my brothers laugh so much?

“Helen, are you going to bring your potato salad?” I remember her sister, Anne, asking before multiple gatherings, including a family reunion at South Park in Pittsburgh and a trip to the vacation home of their brother, Joey. “If you want me to,” my mother usually replied.

Only my sisters and I knew how much effort the potato salad required. We cradled potatoes in paper towels while we peeled them, that’s how hot they were. If it was a humid day, beads of  perspiration dripped down Mom’s face, and her glasses slid to the tip of her nose. We did as much of the work as possible at the kitchen table, but Mom couldn’t avoid  standing for a good part of the time and taxing her arthritic knees.

For Mom, the end result overshadowed the effort. She appreciated the accolades. She liked to prepare food that others savored. I also imagine she enjoyed spending time with her daughters. Sitting around the table or standing by the sink, we exchanged stories, shared laughs, and bonded as only people with a common goal can do.

Although my sisters and I helped her, Mom usually reserved certain tasks for herself. She was the one who cut the celery. She was the one who separated yolks from whites and chopped them. If we did something she wanted done just so, she kept an eye on us. She really was particular about her potato salad.

As an adult, I appreciate homemade potato salad, but when I make it, I cut corners. I don’t have Mom’s patience. I peel potatoes before cooking them. I cut yolks and whites together. In addition, I doctor my dressing more than my mother ever did. Consequently, it never tastes the same. Mayonnaise, Miracle Whip, ranch dressing, and even sour cream might make their way into my dressing. I also may add cheese, mushrooms, chopped pickles — radical, I know.

I last made potato salad for Mom at a Labor Day picnic in 2008. By that time, she and Dad had lived for nearly a year in Jefferson City, Mo. Mom had survived a stroke and surgery, and she had spent several months in a rehabilitation center. By Labor Day, though, she had been living in her apartment again for several months. A picnic seemed like a good idea.

It was a good idea. My potato salad turned out well, but I worried that it didn’t have enough time to chill. As my mother tasted her first bite of potato salad, I held my breath.

“Lisa, your potato salad is good,” she said.

I exhaled, smiled, and thanked her. My mother rarely gave compliments, so I knew she genuinely liked the potato salad. I felt like I had arrived as a cook.

I don’t know what else we ate. Brownies? Likely. Did my husband make hotdogs? Probably. We even may have roasted marshmallows. After the picnic, we walked on the cement path around the lake. We took turns pushing my mother in her wheelchair. Dad used his cane. The kids danced around us and spent time on the swings and slide. It was a lovely way to say good-bye to summer and hello to fall.

Labor Day is tomorrow. I don’t know what we shall do. What shall we eat? Potato salad, anyone?




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