Here's the thing about potato salad: in theory, I don't like it. It's one of those leftover childhood distastes for things that seem like they're probably bad for you anyway, like caffeine. Or cocaine. Or random sex with strangers. All things you probably shouldn't retest in adulthood lest you find out they're not as bad as your mother made them out to be. Such is the case with potato salad. It's mayonnaise based - ew - and lacking in any predominately healthy ingredients. But like coffee-flavored anything, the more I try it in adulthood the better it tastes. (It's probably a good thing I've never sampled cocaine).
Potato salad’s creamy mayonniase-induced high is as much from its context as the ingredient list. I associate chilled potato salad with summer potlucks, rubbed up against a barbecued salmon and mixed with cucumbers from a greek salad. This was a good summer for potlucks. We had almost forty long-time friends over to celebrate my dad and my joint birthdays. There were wood-fired pizza potlucks, crab boils, fried chicken dinners, and other excuses to gather in groups and eat good food.
I was scheduled to host a potluck this month for a magazine shoot. There was going to be roast lamb, local crab, and huckleberry pie along with signed photo waivers, prop styling, and NDAs. So basically all the staples of a good island potluck. Due to a series of unfortunate events, we had to cancel the faux-luck. It may be for the best. But since the behind-the-scenes view of a Lopez potluck dinner won’t be gracing the glossy pages of a magazine near you anytime soon, I thought I’d offer instead a few words of advice, should you ever find yourself invited to an island potluck.
Don’t arrive on time.
When islanders say 5, they mean that by 5 they’ll be setting up the saw horse table in the yard and pulling mason jars off the shelves to be filled with their latest batch of homebrew. The secret-family-recipe potato salad will have made just it in the fridge to chill. So come late. You won’t be the last one, I promise. There’s always that couple that shows up at 7:30 with a fried zucchini appetizer, she in a wrapped knit shawl and he toting his mandolin.
Do bring your own dishes.
Ceramic, of course. And real cutlery. Preferably carried in a woven basket.
Don’t bring salmon.
Unless you caught it yourself, that is, from a local reef net gear. Or during your summer stint up in Bristol Bay. Oh don’t worry, there’ll be plenty of salmon. Sockeye, of course. If you’re lucky, marinated overnight in a soy miso ginger dressing and then barbecued just long enough for the flesh to turn opaque at the edges and fall apart like a sliced loaf of bread.
Do try a little bit of everything.
Cold thai noodles sprinkled with a flurry ofjulienne carrots in a large maple bowl. Deconstructed greek salad with crisp garden cucumbers and sun gold tomatoes, pardon the imported sheeps-milk feta. Deviled eggs made from the Sunday haul at the communal coop where everyone chips in for chicken feed and collects eggs on their assigned day of the week. Pile it all on that ceramic plate sop up the quinoa kale ceasar juice with naturally leavened sourdough spread with Andre's homemade goat cheese. There’s nothing quite like it.
Don’t bring a salad.
Unless all the ingredients come from your organic backyard garden. Or at the very least from the horse-drawn farmstand down the road. In the early days of potlucking, my mother used to bring a plain green salad. From store-bought lettuce. With bottled dressing. In a plain white bowl! Imagine my humiliation, the island version of wanting to be dropped off at the mall a few blocks away. I was mortified that we didn’t have locally thrown pottery to carry in our backyard greens topped with edible nasturtiums.
Do bake a dessert from foraged berries.
Blackberries, probably. Or in a real pinch, organic strawberries from the U-pick farm will do. If you make a peach cobbler, someone will ask you whose orchard the peaches came from and you’ll feel embarrassed. You’ll conveniently forget to bring out the frozen yogurt you stashed in the host’s freezer when you spot the kids cranking the wooden ice cream maker to churn up a mint watermelon sorbet.
Don’t wear clothes that need to be dry cleaned.
In fact, if you’re under five, you probably don’t need to wear clothes at all. There will inevitably be a bonfire after dinner and the smoke will stick to your hair and red flannel shirt so that you’ll wake up wanting to shower, do laundry, and eat a toasted marshmallow all at once. Bring layers. You don’t want to have to sit too close, lest a silver-haired old crank tells you to move back, you’re blocking his heat.
Do stay until the end.
If you stay long enough, someone finds another bottle of whiskey. By 10:30 or so, it’s finally dark; the meteor shower starts overhead and the entertainment begins. Sometimes a guy perched on a rock off to the side plays the recorder he picked up at the take-it-or-leave-it. Maybe the mandolin comes out. If you’re lucky, you might just spot the naked fire jugglers. Sip your whiskey, eat another piece of foraged berry cobbler, and take a good look.
Barthelow Potato Salad
Adapted by Barbara Barthelow Glazis
My dad comes from an army-family of eight kids. All the siblings grew up on this version of potato salad that my grandmother - who I called Rarebi - made. My Aunt Barbara has carried on the tradition of making it, and my dad recently tried his hand at a version. It's a little more sunset colored than some varieties and relatively simple in its ingredient list - in fact I like to throw in some celery and bigger pickle chunks for a little texture. However, it's a crowd pleaser and makes a lovely potluck dish.
10 lbs potatoes (I like to use Yukon Gold)
3 -5 sweet onions (like vidalia), chopped finely
1 dozen eggs, hard boiled, chopped finely
5-7 dill pickles, chopped finely
Onion salt (salt, not powder)
One quart (or what was a quart) of Best Foods mayonnaise
~ 1/3 cup of Heinz ketchup
~ 1/2 tsp French’s Yellow mustard
2 - 3 tablespoons dill pickle juice (Klausen)
1 Teaspoon onion salt (or to taste)
Peel potatoes and slice them length wise to cook.
Once cooked let them cool, then slice them into tiny cubes tossing with onion salt occasionally using a two tined fork so they separate but don’t get mashed.
Chop eggs and mix with potatoes.
Add chopped onions to potatoes.
Mix all sauce ingredients with whisk until smooth and creamy.
Add to potatoes and mix well with a two tined fork.
Note: My aunt Barbara does a “Potato Salad Bar” as some people don’t like the plainness of the salad. For this option, keep the onions out of the potato mixture and put the following in bowls: chopped olives, onions, celery, and sweet pickle relish.