Potato Salad: Do You Swallow or Spit?
When I was a boy, my Grandma Missy put the fear of God in me about other people’s potato salad.
“Don’t you dare eat that,” she’d whisper menacingly into my ear while prying a fork out of my hand.
“You don’t know how long it’s been sitting out.” Of course, the same logic never applied to her potato salad.
Nothing epitomizes summertime eating like potato salad. No picnic or cookout is complete without it. In my family, it’s always been part of the High Holy Southern Summer Trinity along with fried chicken and watermelon.
My Grandma Missy closely guarded her potato salad recipe as if it were a family heirloom. Though never written down or shared, her recipe was made with new potatoes, Duke’s mayonnaise, Mt. Olive sweet pickle relish, chopped up hard boiled eggs, yellow mustard, and a sprinkle of paprika. I know because I watched.
My grandmother, like many Southern women, treated potato salad as if she had invented it. A proud Florida cracker, she disliked a lot of things—Catholics, Democrats, Georgia Bulldog football, Pepsi Cola, and uppity Yankees—I could go on.
But she had a real distaste for foreigners and foreign things. I don’t think she ever truly forgave my father for the one time he purchased a Mercedes instead of a Cadillac. She was a Trumper before Trump.
I would also venture to say she had no idea she owed her precious “tater salad” to two of the world’s great forces: globalization and immigration.
The story of potato salad begins way back in the early 1500s when Spanish explorers brought the potato from Peru back to Spain. At first thought to be poisonous, the potato eventually caught on and spread through Europe, first as a livestock feed then as an important food staple.
The potato was part of the “Columbian Exchange,” the vast spread of plants, culture, people, animals, diseases, ideas, and technology between the Americas, Europe and Africa.
The first potatoes arrived in the Virginia Colony around 1621 from Bermuda. The first permanent potato patches were established in New Hampshire. Cultivation then spread west. Potatoes grow underground and they don’t do well in the South because the soil gets too hot.
Culinary historians believe potato salad came to these shores via German immigrants in the 1800s. Their recipes for hot potato salad made from cooked potatoes dressed with oil, vinegar, and herbs became the norm throughout the country until the rise of mayonnaise.
Hot or cold, today we still call a vinegar-based potato salad “German potato salad.”
Classic Southern-style potato salad like the kind my Grandma Missy used to make relies heavily on mayonnaise, an emulsion of oil, egg, lemon juice, vinegar, and seasonings created in France. Commercial mayonnaise was first produced and sold in Philadelphia and by Richard Hellmann in New York around 1907. Hellman—you guessed it—was a German immigrant.
Duke’s Mayonnaise, a favorite of many Southerners, wasn’t even produced until the 1920s. The Mt. Olive relish and pickles my grandmother loved? A Lebanese immigrant in North Carolina, who saw an opportunity with the wasted cucumber crops of local farmers started the company.
Let’s recap shall we? The potato salad Americans hold so near and dear to their hearts came to the United States with immigrants and is made using potatoes that originated in South America and is flavored with prepared mayonnaise and seasonings created by foreigners and immigrants. How about them potatoes?
So, if you find yourself at a a summer picnic or BBQ with a Trumper or two and there is potato salad on the menu, I hope you’ll take a moment to share this little story of immigrant ingenuity. Personally, I’d recount it just as the Trumper has taken a big mouthful of potato salad. Then watch to see if the Trumper grimaces and swallows or spits it out in a napkin. Rude? Perhaps. But such good fun!
Bon appétit. ▼
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town, and Fun with Dick and James.