The potato salad is always a concern. The success of every summertime event hinges upon its outcome. If too acidic then the family reunion will either be called off or derisive factions will form. Too yellow and the picnic blanket will be abandoned, the bounty laden upon its red and white checks left to bake in the August heat (lest crows show mercy upon its mayonnaise-based soul.) Too mushy and entire holidays will be ruined.
I remember many a Fourth of July spent perched on the laminate counter-top in my parents' kitchen. I would watch, mesmerized, as my mother went round and round a stainless steel bowl with her hand-mixer, combining the contents of our refrigerator's condiment section into a ribbony, buttercup yellow sauce.
The mixer itself was a relic of God-knows-when, and had long since passed the point when it was safe to operate. With every sweep of the bowl the mixer would spark, creating a miniature fireworks show. It was magical. Occasionally, mom would stop mixing to sample her creation. Always the consummate home economics major, she religiously used the two spoon method: one to scoop up and transfer and another to taste. In this safe food handling practice she found consolation, for no matter how unsatisfactory the potato salad turned out, no one ever got food poisoning.
The sauce was a combination of French's yellow mustard, the yolks from hard-boiled eggs, Hellmann's mayonnaise, Best Maid dill pickle juice, paprika, Morton's iodized salt, pepper and a splash of sweet pickle juice. The aforementioned brands were considered key components and no substitutions were acceptable.
Like any good cook, mom didn't use recipes, so getting the sauce right represented a solid afternoon of making meticulous adjustments long after I had abandoned my counter-top post, the lure of faulty electrical equipment having worn off. You knew things were going well if she started talking to herself out loud about pickle juice ratios.
Once my mother had either declared the sauce to be perfect, or gravely delivered the news that there was "nothing more that could be done," she would set to work chopping red potatoes, finely dicing dill pickles and onion and running the egg whites through one of those slice-em-and-dice-em contraptions. Finally, the ingredients would be tossed into a bowl and she would begin incorporating the sauce in a slow drizzle, so as to coat every last cube of potato. In the name of texture and of stress-relief, she mashed some of the tubers along the way.
For the record, the potato salad was always good, despite any of mom's assertions otherwise. It still is. Like laminate counter-tops and the pill, her potato salad is a testament to the staying power of things produced by the '60s. It's not fancy - there aren't fennel fronds or morsels of pancetta - and that's OK. It's the kind of old fashioned dish where everyone consistently takes seconds and no one gets sick. In other words, every homemaker's wet dream.
And then there's my potato salad. It's the kind of new wave variety that mothers have been warning their children about - it's served warm and hasn't been touched by a pickle, sour or sweet. It's made with red potatoes in a nod to my mom, but after they're done I immediately cut them up, rather than letting them cool on a rack like she does. I take after their white, steamy insides with a bottle of white vinegar and salt and pepper. The key is to basically take the potatoes by surprise, assaulting them with flavor while they are still warm enough to absorb it. For every ten medium potatoes or so I add one small bunch of celery, leaves and all. In go some hard-boiled eggs - which I also subject to the slice-em-and-dice-em-contraption - and just enough mayo to bind it all together. I taste it with the same spoon I mix it with, reassuring myself that mom will never know. I may adjust it with a few more splashes of vinegar and some salt. The whole process takes 15 minutes, tops.
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For a while, I thought my salad was empirically better than my mom's. Mine is different and fresh. It doesn't take all day and it only dirties one bowl and one spoon. It's even a little ethnic, gleaning inspiration from Southern Germany's popular Kartoffelsalat potato salad.
Also unlike my mom's, which is eaten until no more remains, there's always some of my potato salad left at the end of the meal. It sits in the bottom of the bowl, mocking me. I can only blame so much on the inevitable celery-hater in the room. The fact is that my mom's potato salad is what people want potato salad to be. They don't necessarily know what's in it or behind it, they just know it tastes like the cover of a Southern Living magazine looks.
I won't be deterred from making my vinegary, crunchy rendition, but the popularity of my mom's salad is enough to incentivize me to spend a little more time on the seasoning. Maybe use two spoons. Maybe, just maybe, have one bowl for mixing and one for serving.
Next week, my mom is meeting my sister's boyfriend for the first time. It's serious, apparently, and he drives a '98 Camry so it's imperative my family doesn't screw this up. A Texas-style spread is on the menu, so naturally mom's main concern is the salad - it must be right. Let's hope the mixer still works.