I made potato salad for the first time, then broke the rules and brought it to a potluck.
When I grew up there was only one person who made potato salad at family gatherings, that was my cousin Karen. I have no real recollection of who made it before her, but as a teenager and adult, Karen was always in charge.
My only experience in making potato salad was when Cousin Karen handed me the potatoes and a knife, then told me “Cousin Tara T, peel these potatoes for me.” It wasn’t a question, it was a direction from a young woman not too many years older than I. In 2019 Karen unexpectedly passed away and life seemed very different.
Karen was a light in life, loud and wildly fun. When she passed there was nothing but grief. Our first gathering several months later was odd. Without Karen’s loud antics, whether in the form of a story or directions, gatherings were just different. During the Holidays, my son and I went to her eldest daughter’s house. Her youngest daughter came to me and asked, “Cousin Tara can you taste my potato salad?” A smile widely crossed my face as I felt light in my eyes. “Of course,” I answered.
I took the spoon she offered, dug in, took a bite and closed my eyes. I felt the tears. I looked at the beautiful young woman my cousin became and I told her, “It’s good. It’s really good!”
“Does it taste like Mamas?” she asked me.
I told her “It’s close, it’s really close. It just needs a little something that I can’t think of right now.”
She disappeared into the kitchen and came back a few moments later. “How about now?”
My other cousin, Karen’s older sister, and I both took a taste. We both grinned and told her the potato salad was good. Her potato salad was excellent actually, right on point. I had to over emphasize that as she smiled with pride.
The fact is, other than watching potatoes boiling I never saw Karen make her potato salad. She inevitably kicked everyone out while she cooked, yelling “Too many cooks in the kitchen!” It’s been two years since she passed and I consistently think about Karen and how much I miss her. I’ve also been reading more and more about the potato salad debate within the Black community.
The potato salad debate is a hilarious one that many Black folks enjoy going back and forth about. There are jokes, blogs, videos and more about who gets to make the potato salad. People write social media posts asking who makes it in the family, who doesn’t and what does one do if a random person brings it to an event. Not to mention the literal crime of putting in raisins, other odd ingredients and/or not adding enough salt. I enjoy these posts with a great deal of laughter as I think of Cousin Karen.
Recently, I’ve had the urge to try and make potato salad, but always thought it just wasn’t my place. When my girlfriends and I decided to meet for brunch, I thought that was my chance. I decided I would make the potato salad, casually bring it and in the middle of eating let everyone know it was my first try. I knew I’d be in a safe zone of shit-talking with lots of love and I could handle that with this crew. My next step was to start the research.
I looked over every single foodie blog I could find. I should emphasize, I unapologetically looked over Black Foodie Blogs. My people are from the South and I wanted to research what was within my own culture. I read stories that mimicked my family’s and enjoyed every moment. After I finished the research I made my decision of what ingredients I would use.
I went to the grocery store and purchased the potatoes and since I was out of several condiments, I bought more mayo, mustard and relish. I got home, rushed to boil the potatoes and eggs, then the memories started.
As I peeled the potatoes I found myself in the past sitting on my Aunt’s couch, peeling the potatoes Karen handed me and her shouting from the kitchen, “Hurry up!” I laughed as I re-experienced the moment. I hurried to go into a Zoom meeting and when I thought the potatoes and eggs were done, I took them off the stove to let them drain and cool. After the meeting, I had to rush and prepare for the potluck.
I no longer looked at the recipes, I thought about Karen and started putting everything together. I laughed as I reminisced over our countless family gatherings. I mixed the mayo, mustard, relish and added a splash of apple cider vinegar. I internally told myself to call on the Ancestors for guidance, which I very often do as I cook. I made the potato salad with plenty of love, tears (happy tears) salt, pepper and paprika. Had to make sure my seasoning was on point.
When I finished I took a few pictures and felt happy with the result. I thought to myself, “Would Cousin Karen approve of this potato salad,” and the answer was a resounding “NO!” I consciously did not use Miracle Whip, I used regular mayo instead. One thing I knew for sure, Karen always used Miracle whip. I laughed at the thought of my Cousin’s distinctive palate.
I hurriedly covered and put the potato salad in the fridge, then got ready for the potluck. I drove to my friends house, handed her the potato salad, which she promptly put in her fridge. We started catching up when our other friend arrived. We were chatting away when a shift suddenly occurred.
My friend’s husband came in the room and suggested we go to an outdoor concert. Because my other friends were going to order food instead of cook, which I found out while making the potato salad but knew it would be a great compliment. Before I knew it my friend and her husband were packing up the food cooler. I saw him scoop out the potato salad into a to-go container and I felt my nervous excitement grow. I felt like I couldn’t keep the secret to myself, but I kept quiet.
We got everyone together and went to the outdoor concert, we put out our chairs, then started to socialize. We went to the food truck, ordered more food and after eating, danced to the music. The band, “Papa Joe and the New Deal,” was so fabulous, I forgot about the potato and danced. The sun was bright, it was sweltering hot, but that didn’t stop us. We danced and laughed to all the oldies Papa Joe and his beautiful family sang. It was great!
We sat down and continued to talk and my friend mentioned the potato salad. I was too full but thought I’d eat anyway. Before pulling it out the cooler, my friend got whisked away and I jumped up to dance more. Our other friend had to go, so we packed up and decided to go look at houses. After more hustle and bustle, when we were about to settle down again as the concert ended and people were leaving. My friend shouted, “Oh shoot, we forgot to eat the potato salad.” I thought she was just being polite, but she wasn’t.
As we were chatting, I divulged that this was my first potato salad. She looked surprised and said, “Really, it was good!” My eyes opened widely and I asked, “You tasted it?”
She excitedly said, “Yeah! You didn’t see me take a big scoop out before putting the bowl in the sink?” I smiled and said, “No!”
What I missed was when her husband started scooping, he walked in the other room to do something really quickly. I was preoccupied and did not see that my friend took over the scooping. What did not fit in the container, went into her mouth. I looked at her and beamed, “You really liked it?” I asked.
“Yes! Are you kidding, it was good!” she replied.
My heart opened as I felt like I just accomplished a major achievement. My first potato salad was a success. I told my friend my little secret, that was my first time making potato salad. She said she was surprised, that it was really good. Just as I asked her for feedback, her granddaughter chimed in with a very important question.
“Grandma, how would you rate it?” I laughed at her precociousness.
My friend said, “Oh, I would say it’s a nine-and-a-half.” I smiled and nodded. Before I could say anything else she added, “The other half has to do with something in particular I like in a potato salad.”
She told me the ingredient, which actually sounded delicious, but was not a typical ingredient. She laughed as she said she knew it wasn’t a potato salad ingredient, but she just loves them. I won’t say cause it really is her thing.
As we talked I shared with her the story about my Cousin Karen. We both teared up reminiscing over both of our close losses. We talked about family gatherings, food and the importance of both our in our culture. It was a beautiful moment.
My friend encouraged me to make my potato salad for family. I can’t say I’ll ever bring it to a family gathering, they are very particular. I may consider bringing it to other gatherings however, but it really depends on who is the designated potato salad person. That’s just too important to mess with.
In the evening when everyone was in our respective homes, sharing photos with each other, my friend sent a beautiful text. In her recap to another friend who missed the event, she ended with “Tara made the bomb potato salad.” That lit up my heart. It was a happy day!
As I prepared this potato salad I did not take measurements this time around. I was nervously trying to make it as good as possible in a way that suited my comfort level, intuitive cooking. I promise next time to write down the measurements as I cook and share my recipe along with the responses.