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. In June and July, a new batch would appear every couple of weeks — small chunks of potato, sweet pickle, egg, and raw onion all mixed in a slightly sweet, slightly tangy dressing. (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 were spent playing outside for hours on end interrupted by lunches of ham salad sandwiches and potato salad. Over the years, days 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 for a while. Those days were followed by years of jobs, travel, and … no potato salad. Only once did I ask her 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 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. 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.)

At home in Indiana, I joined a farm share. A friend of mine found an Amish farmer, a driver, and enough people to go in on garden fresh produce. I love how the produce evolves as the seasons change from lettuce to broccoli to snap peas, then cucumbers. And then the small bags of new potatoes started to arrive. It was a sign that I finally needed to learn how to make my mom’s potato salad.

That 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 mother, 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 flooded 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 one 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 celebrate them as the foundation of who we are today.

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 listen for her voice to guide me. And I 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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