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?

 

 

 

Love Doesn’t Need a Measuring Spoon

Mom measured most ingredients very carefully, using the flat edge of a knife to level off spices, flour, and leavening agents. After more than 50 years of use, my mother's measuring spoons are bent, discolored, and disconnected from each other. I still use them, however, and I treasure the connection with her.
Mom measured most ingredients very carefully, using the flat edge of a knife to level off spices, flour, and leavening agents. After more than 50 years of use, my mother’s measuring spoons are bent, discolored, and disconnected from each other. I still use them, however, and I treasure the connection with her.

For Mother’s Day, my daughter Elizabeth made a decadent chocolate pudding pie with a cookie crust. The recipe called for a teaspoon of vanilla. When the time came, did Elizabeth reach for the bottle of vanilla and a teaspoon? Nope. She just poured in what she thought was the right amount.

“Oh my,” I said to her. “Granny is probably turning over in her grave.”

My mother, Helen, usually measured ingredients carefully. She taught me to level off a cup of flour with the straight edge of a knife. She showed me how to pack a half cup of brown sugar so that it fell out of a measuring cup in a lump. For more than 50 years, she used her silver measuring spoons so frequently that they are now bent, discolored, and disconnected from each other.

Of course, Mom never needed to measure her most important ingredient. Neither do I, and neither does Elizabeth. I’m talking about love. The more, the better.

I sometimes prepare food haphazardly for my family, but I don't remember Mom ever doing that. She even cut sandwiches carefully, from corner to corner.  Mom's magnet now hangs on my refrigerator. Years ago, we sometimes joked about her secret ingredient, but I really do think that love helped her turn ordinary meals like tuna loaf into a special family meal. (She also owned a spice canister with a similar message. My sister and I think it's squirreled away in a storage box, awaiting excavation.)
I sometimes prepare food haphazardly for my family, but I don’t remember Mom ever doing that. She even cut sandwiches carefully, from corner to corner.
Mom’s magnet now hangs on my refrigerator. Years ago, we sometimes joked about her secret ingredient, but I really do think that love helped her turn ordinary meals like tuna loaf into a special family meal. (She also owned a spice canister with a similar message. My sister and I think it’s squirreled away in a storage box, awaiting excavation.)

Mom’s special ingredient made tasty meals even tastier. I especially liked her chicken paprika, a Hungarian dish also known as chicken paprikash. Just thinking about the pasta shells and tender chicken smothered in a paprika-flavored cream sauce makes my taste buds tingle. I have made it for my own family, and although it’s good, it doesn’t measure up to what my mother made.

When my parents moved to Jefferson City in 2007, I tried to make holidays special. A picnic on Labor Day with homemade potato salad and other fixings. Pork roast on New Year’s Day. A cake shaped like a Christmas tree for the holiday season.

My most poignant memory focuses on Mother’s Day 2009. That year, Mom was hospitalized a few days before Mother’s Day because of her heart condition. What kind of celebration could we have? She was in intensive care at St. Mary’s Hospital in Jefferson City.

Fortunately, on Mother’s Day, the ICU staff gave families more leeway with respect to the number of people in a room and the ages of children allowed. ICU rooms are bigger than typical hospital rooms, but even so, Mom’s room bulged with ten visitors, medical equipment, and everything we needed for our Mother’s Day luncheon.

I made one of my go-to meals: beef stroganoff in a slow cooker as well as a fresh loaf of bread in my breadmaker. My visiting siblings brought side dishes and desserts.

“We were a beehive of activity within the ICU,” my sister, Elaine, wrote when I asked for her memories of the day. “Having a party where you’d think there would be little to celebrate — and yet there was. We were laughing and carrying on, and Mom lay there like a queen, surrounded by life and love, at the center of life and love for all of us.”

I wish I remember more particulars about the day. The beef stroganoff turned out well, but I realize now that what we ate didn’t matter. We were just happy to have the ability to celebrate Mother’s Day with Mom, a.k.a. Granny.

My sister reminded me that Elizabeth floored us by how well she read a greeting card to Granny. At the time, she was only in first grade. She read slowly, loudly and clearly, like the best of church lectors. I don’t think she stumbled once.

We spent Mother's Day 2009 with my mother in the intensive care unit at St. Mary's Hospital. We used this tray table in her room to hold her cards and a flower arrangement my sister and I created using silk flowers. Mom and I had taken a flower-arranging class years before and enjoyed it very much. (Note the handle of my father's cane to the right of the tray table. At that time, my father used his cane in a cavalier manner, often placing it where it would do him no good. He lost it several times, so eventually we put our names and my phone number on it.)
We spent Mother’s Day 2009 with my mother in the intensive care unit at St. Mary’s Hospital. We used this tray table in her room to hold her cards and a flower arrangement my sister and I created using silk flowers. Mom and I had taken a flower-arranging class years before and enjoyed it very much. (Note the handle of my father’s cane to the right of the tray table. At that time, my father used his cane in a cavalier manner, often placing it where it would do him no good. He lost it several times, so eventually we put our names and my phone number on it.)

As Elizabeth read, the room grew quiet. We were spellbound. Granny looked occasionally at the card, but she focused on Elizabeth, her youngest grandchild. The moment seared itself into my memory bank. My mother and my little girl. Life doesn’t get any better than that.


	

In Honor of My Father’s Birthday

Dad liked the sweet and tangy taste of lemon desserts. For his 88th birthday, I made him this meringue pie. I didn't think the pie could handle a candle, so I brought one of my jar candles for him to blow out.
Dad liked the sweet and tangy taste of lemon desserts. For his 88th birthday, I made him this meringue pie. I didn’t think the pie could handle a candle, so I brought one of my jar candles for him to blow out. When I decided this month to visit the nursing home where he once lived, I brought homemade lemon bars.
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Dad enjoyed having a private room at Oak Tree Villas, where he lived from July 2013 to May 2014. He would have turned 92 on April 2nd of this year. He enjoyed company, so to honor his memory, my two younger children and I visited residents and served treats. We traveled from room to room, taking our cues from staff members and residents.

By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach

LisaYorkgitisNahach@gmail.com

Holding a milk-glass basket filled with sweets, I knocked lightly on a partially open door at Oak Tree Villas in Jefferson City, Missouri. I waited for a moment and then nudged the door open a little bit more. A woman relaxing in a recliner opened her eyes. She had lush white hair, which framed her face in soft curls. I estimated her age at 85.

“Hello,” she said in a clear, welcoming voice.

“Hello,” I said. “My name is Lisa, and these are my children Elizabeth and Timothy. We brought you some treats. Would you like a brownie or a lemon bar?”

“A lemon bar, please,” she said.

My father probably would have selected a lemon bar, too. He loved the can’t-miss-it flavor of lemon, especially in sweets. When I arranged to commemorate Dad’s 92nd birthday earlier this month by visiting residents at Oak Tree and offering them a treat, I had no trouble deciding what to bring.

Lemon bars have long been a family favorite. Featuring a shortbread crust and a smooth, tangy lemon filling, the bars look very festive arranged in paper cupcake holders. I wasn’t sure if one pan would be enough, so an hour before show time, my daughter offered to make brownies. She’s a sweetie!

At the nursing home, the treats were a hit. “These lemon bars sure are good,” one woman called after we had left her room and gone into another. “I’m glad you like them,” I told her as we passed her sitting in a wheelchair in the doorway of her room.

Staff members at the nursing home served as our guides. One resident ate only pureed food, so she couldn’t eat sweets. Another woman was diabetic, so she, too, shouldn’t have any. If residents were sleeping soundly, we left a brownie, a lemon bar, or both on a side table. If a door was closed, we didn’t disturb the resident. Once inside a resident’s room, we took our cues from them as well as visiting friends or relatives.

“Thank you for stopping by. That was very nice of you,” said a male visitor.

One of the most receptive residents proved to be the lady with lush white hair who opened her eyes as we entered her room.

My mother collected both milk glass and baskets, and I treasure this milk-glass basket. It served as a conversation piece as well as a way to deliver sweets to residents at Oak Tree Villas. I shot this photo in the activity room at Oak Tree Villas.
My mother collected both milk glass and baskets, and I treasure this milk-glass basket. It served as a conversation piece as well as a way to deliver sweets to residents at Oak Tree Villas. I shot this photo in the activity room at Oak Tree Villas.

She invited us to sit down, and Tim and I each chose a chair. She didn’t have any more chairs, so she urged Elizabeth to sit in her wheelchair, on her hamper, or on her bed, which had a raised-edge mattress, like my father’s hospital bed used to have.

“It doesn’t look comfortable, but it is,” said the resident, who moved in after my father passed away.

My daughter used to have no trouble sitting on Granddad’s wheelchair or on his bed, but she turned shy on me and remained standing, giving the elderly resident a head-to-toe view of her lanky 5’10” self dressed in skinny jeans and a pink Under Armour  sweatshirt.

“You two must do something athletic,” the resident said.

When we told her that Tim and Elizabeth played basketball, she reminisced about how she, too, used to play that sport, except she and her friends didn’t have a gym. They played outside until the weather grew too cold.

Our conversation covered many other topics — the new clothes her mother made for Easter, her four grandsons, and the milk-glass basket I inherited from my mother and used to carry sweets. She admired the basket, called Elizabeth and me pretty, and declared that Tim was a handsome young man. Our new friend charmed us, that’s for sure.

In fact, I think her charming ways have helped her stay young at heart. My kids and I thought she was about 85, but we found out that she is more than 100 years old.

Dad would have been envious. I remember the awe in his voice when he spoke of centenarians. “See that woman?” he said one day a few years ago. “She just turned 100.”

He wasn’t able to live to a hundred, but he did lead a full, active life. Before Parkinson’s Disease reached its final stages, he stayed so busy with activities that I sometimes had to hunt him down when I went to visit. On a sparkling spring day in 2012, a few weeks after he turned 89, I found him at a gathering to celebrate April birthdays. The activities included a quiz about celebrities and other well-known figures who celebrated their birthdays in April. Dad knew so many answers that I thought to myself, “Wow! I hope I am as sharp as he is when I get to be his age.”

Happy Birthday, Dad. We miss you.

Lunch Today, Lunch Yesterday

Yes, I was my parents' daughter as this birthday card from them attests. I was in my early 20's here, and, of course, I had no idea that one day, I would be their caregiver. I also only a glimpse of the friendship I would form with both of them as we would age.  (On a side note, the dress I am wearing here was one my mother wore as a young woman. I loved that dress!  Made from a crinkly fabric in pale lilac, it had a tight bodice and a full skirt. When I wore it, I felt like a spring flower.)
I received this “DAUGHTER” card from my parents when I was 21 or 22. Of course, I had no idea that one day, I would be their caregiver. Pictures like this and memories of times I shared with them help me realize how fortunate I was to have Mom and Dad.

By Lisa Yorkgitis Nahach

LisaYorkgitisNahach@gmail.com

When two women with ash-blonde hair — most likely a mother and daughter — entered the dining area of Panera Bread Co., I noticed them immediately. Four years fell away, and I was once again my mother’s caregiver. I tried not to stare as the younger woman pushed the other’s wheelchair under a table and arranged it at the optimal angle for eating.

“Oh, your sandwich looks good,” she said to her dining companion, a frail, slightly hunched woman in her 70s or 80s wearing blue dangling earrings and a tasteful blue flowered outfit.

I did not hear what the older woman said, but I chuckled to myself when she showed the apple on her plate to the other woman. She seemed to wonder why she had it.

“Are you okay with that?” the younger woman asked. “They try to get you to eat healthy.”

As the two women continued to converse and eat, tears pricked my eyes. I envied the younger woman; I did, I did. Sure, her life probably had its ups and downs, but I could tell as she leaned toward the older woman and rested her hand lightly on her arm that she cherished their relationship.

I thought about approaching their table, but I didn’t know what to say. I was sure they wouldn’t want me blabbering about how I had lost my mother and missed her. Perhaps, I could have said that they seemed to have a lovely relationship, but I didn’t want to seem intrusive. In the end, I stayed put because no matter what I may or may not have said, I didn’t trust myself to remain dry eyed. Furthermore, I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable.

Observing them made me think, of course, about the many times I ate a meal or shared a snack with my parents. One memory stood out; I wanted to recapture it the most.

On that particular day, I drove my mother somewhere — most likely, to a doctor’s office — and afterward, I realized we both could use something to eat. It was too late for her to eat lunch at the nursing home, and besides, I wanted to prolong our time together. We both were in a good mood; it was warm outside but not uncomfortable; and neither of us had any other obligations. We decided to take advantage of the drive-through window at Burger King.

She ordered a regular hamburger. I don’t remember what I ordered, but I do know we shared some fries. We didn’t want to eat in a parking lot — too ordinary — so I drove to a small roadside park, the size of about two parking lots. Only one or two cars were there. It was quiet and peaceful.

For once, neither of us was fussing at the other. She wasn’t telling me, “Lisa, you wear that jacket so often. Is it your uniform?” Likewise, I didn’t feel the need to remind her about anything or question her about any aspect of her life. We were just two friends who also happened to be mother and daughter. I wish I could remember what we talked about, but I don’t think it was anything monumental. I remember feeling relaxed and happy. Mom and I enjoyed our sandwiches, our fries, and our time together.

Since Mom’s death four years ago, I have thought about that day often; in fact, sometimes when I need to calm down, I picture us together and try to recapture the peace that surrounded us. The imagery works. My breathing becomes less shallow, and the tension in my shoulders melts away. I relax. Once again, life becomes manageable.