Life Lessons in Potato Salad

This week’s batch of potato salad.

My mom made the best potato salad. It was one of my favorite parts of long, hot summers in rural Oklahoma. As a kid I never asked her to make it, but every couple of weeks, a new batch would appear — small chunks of potato, sweet pickle, egg, and raw onion all mixed in a slightly sweet, slightly tangy dressing. (I didn’t like raw onion, so she always divided the batch putting onion in half. She’d laugh now that I add the raw onion every time.)

Those long hot summers playing outside for hours on end interrupted by lunches of ham salad sandwiches and potato salad morphed into busy days of high school, then long summers away at college. A cross-country move to a busy city meant I didn’t cook much followed by years of jobs, travel, and no potato salad. Only once did I ask mom to show me how to make it. I paid attention, but — as we always do — figured there was time to have her teach me later. Later never came.

Over the years, I tried a few times to make potato salads following a variety of recipes. They were varying degrees of terrible, mainly because they never came close to the taste of hers. I could never get it right. The balance of sweetness, tang, and salt never came together, so I stopped. Other people have fantasies about getting one last day with a parent at a baseball game or fishing. Mine was that I’d stand next to my mother in her kitchen while she taught me how to make her most treasured recipes. (I still never get the caramel icing right on her favorite spice cake. I watched her make that cake a hundred times while she listened to me go on about school or boys I liked.)

Last summer at home in Indiana, I joined a farm share. A friend of mine set it up after she found an Amish farmer, a driver, and enough people to go in on garden fresh produce. Figuring out what to do with the produce in my box each week became one of my favorite parts of summer, even when the small bags of new potatoes started to arrive. Turns out it was a sign — a sign that I finally needed to learn how to make my mom’s potato salad.

The first week, I went slowly, carefully prepping each ingredient. I boiled the potatoes and eggs, then chopped the sweet pickles and onions, the whole time carefully listening for my mom, for a memory of how she’d made this dish with such love. I remembered that she had always separated the hard cooked yolks to go in the dressing. I followed her lead as nearly as I could remember adding a good-sized spoonful of mayo, a dollop of mustard, then a little milk. I mixed. It still didn’t taste right. Maybe a little pickle juice? Or maybe, that trick that makes deviled eggs work — white vinegar. I tinkered, I tweaked. It was a damn good potato salad dressing. It just wasn’t hers. Still, there were potatoes the following week, and the week after that, so I kept at it.

Each week I got a little closer. A little more of this, a little less of this. And then, Eureka, one week I nailed it. The taste was spot on flooding my mind with memories of summers barefoot on the hot concrete patio, running in for lunches before heading back to the swimming pool or the sun. It was a taste of a carefree time — not filled with adult worries like bills and schedules and obligations.

It’s summer again and last week the farm share had my first batch of new potatoes. This morning, I set to the task of making my mother’s potato salad again, but realized something. When I make potato salad, I leave the skins on the potatoes. I use whole grain Dijon mustard instead of yellow. I like a little white wine vinegar instead of plain white. I always use my own bread and butter pickles that are spicier than than those from the grocery. And this morning, as I chopped the raw onion more finely than she ever did, I realized that the taste I seek isn’t hers anymore, it’s mine. I’ve made this potato salad my own. And while I still sometimes get that hit of memory when I’m closer to the taste of hers than of mine, I make this dish for me. The taste of hers isn’t lost — it’s just changed. It’s a reminder that I don’t want to relive those times, but to celebrate them. Making potato salad every week is now my way to celebrate family and childhood summers and my mother. I think about her every time I chop and dice — and hope that someday, someone makes a dish I love and thinks about me. Thanks, mom, I hope I always miss you every time I make potato salad.

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