Crimes against potato salad: How not to get uninvited from the cookout

To some, potato salad is a picnic's hot poison. To black folks, it's a soul food staple you best not mess up

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published July 4, 2019 10:00AM (EDT)


A few months ago, two Facebook pages engaged in what could have been a disastrous experiment. In March the Afrocentric Films Collaborative offered black people the chance to ask white people one question they always wanted to know. Then the Alabama Department of Memes turned the tables the following month, inviting white people to do the same thing. With a few exceptions, the queries asked were good-natured and polite, as were the answers.

Among the ones that stuck out on the Alabama page, however, was one from user Samantha Calloway: "Who started the rumor that we put raisins in potato salad? Nobody does that sh-t!"

Samantha, I am sorry to say that is not true. Feast your eyes on this recipe for Curried Potato Salad with Golden Raisins and Chickpeas, brought to us by Stop & Shop. Actually, just skip to the bottom to read the one-star review submitted by someone who has no intentions of making or tasting said salad. Subject line: "no ma'am."

"This is not a potato salad," the reviewer says. "A made up potato casserole with random ingredients from the kitchen, yes. A potato salad, it is not. No ma'am."

To explain the hostility toward raisins in potato salad, and the assumption that this is a white people thing, credit T'Challa, ruler of Wakanda. Mind you, black folks have made jokes about white people putting raisins in their potato salad long before April 2018, when "Black Panther" star Chadwick Boseman appeared in character on "Saturday Night Live" as a player on Black Jeopardy. There the Wakandan king competes against Americans Shanice and Rashad and quickly discovers he is, shall we say, unaccustomed to the realities of being a person of African descent in America.

But the pivotal moment for T'Challa comes when he chooses the category "White People" for $400.

The answer: "Your Friend Karen Brings Her Potato Salad to Your Cookout".

"I think I'm getting the hang of this," T'Challa says. "Before I answer, a few questions. This woman Karen — she is Caucasian, neh? And she has her own recipe for potato salad, neh? Ah, I understand."

"It is noble that she would volunteer to cook for everyone," T'Challa continues. "And although I have never had potato salad, I sense that this white woman does not season her food. And if she does, it is only with a tiny bit of salt. And no paprika. And she would probably add something unnecessary, like raisins. So something tells me that I should say: 'Aw hell naw, Karen, keep your bland ass potato salad to yourself!'"

You gotta feel for the Karens of the world. They are legion, and as the Black Panther points out, they're only trying to contribute to the potluck. (Trick statement, Karen: in this situation, you are at a cookout, not a potluck.) On the other hand, it's unlikely that they've ever been subjected to the cultural pressure of making a crowd-pleasing potato salad, let alone one for an audience that will read you to your face and won't let you live down your failure for years afterward.

"African Americans are very serious about potato salad," soul food scholar and author Adrian E. Miller told Salon. "I'm not sure how that particular side dish became so totemic at black cookouts, but it can make or break one's reputation as a cook."

Chef Carla Hall, the former co-host of "The Chew," echoes this. "I actually had a woman who was cooking with me once. We were catering an event for TV One. But I wasn't there. I told her, 'OK, we have potato salad.' And so she made a potato salad with dill and like, no relish. I'm like, 'Girl, do you know who we making this potato salad for?' … Her potato salad is different because she had her version of what they do in their family. That's not the same as the black version."

Few dishes feel so at once culturally specific and non-specific than this contradictory dish, one that's in many ways so American but, according to various food historians, came from Europe. And yet, homemade potato salad is claimed as a soul food staple.

"Even at my restaurant we had potato salad," said Hall.  "There's nothing like a good potato salad."

And the key to knowing whether a potato salad is good lies in body language, Hall said. "It's very interesting when you look at somebody's face as they have the potato salad at whatever place, and you haven't ordered it yet . . . Sometimes they'll pause and give a little head nod like, 'Oh, OK.' You know that means it's good."

"If they just like, you know, shrug their shoulders like, 'eh, It's OK,'" she added, "that means it'll do. I'll eat it, but it's not really awesome. And then if they don't eat it, you don't order it."

In modern times potato salad is an outdoor living dish that is either revered, under-appreciated or rejected at cookouts and barbecues. By the way, in case you don't know, "cookouts" and "barbecues" are terms with different connotations; depending on who you are and where you come from, the definition varies. The same can be said about potato salad.

It also is a dish that reveals the many cultural dividing lines in America while simultaneously celebrating them. Correctly executed, somewhat regardless of the recipe — but only somewhat — a scoop of it can be a magical, unifying transition between the tangy spice of whatever ribs, brisket or vegetables constitute the main dish, and other accompaniments like beans, collard greens or cole slaw.

Of course, one's idea of a "correct" potato salad recipe is wide open to interpretation. Both Miller and Hall agree that the must-have ingredients for a good potato salad are mayonnaise, mustard ("enough mustard to give it a rich, yellow color," says Miller), relish and eggs. Miller also looks for a generous topping of paprika.

Hall is OK with a little bit of celery, but it has to be a really small amount. "And I guess if you want to put in that little bit, make sure it's grated." Onions she sees as a personal choice, but an even smaller amount and added right before serving the salad, "because the onions can take over."

"When you think about potato salad, it's a blend of sweet and sour, because you have the vinegar from the mustard, and of course, salt," said Hall. "The sweetness comes from the relish as well as a little bit of the egg and the potatoes, although the potatoes are kind of neutral. And then you have the sour coming from that acid, which you'll have in the vinegar and the pickles."

Of utmost importance, though, is choosing the right type of potato as the star. Hall likes Idahos or Yukon Gold on the smaller side of medium. She also advises cooking the potatoes in their jackets and in seasoned water to give them a flavor apart from their dressing.

Texture and density also are important in a cooked potato. A perfectly cooked potato should give a little bit upon being pinched but shouldn't squash like softened butter. Spuds that are holding their shape after being stirred into the dressing are too hard. If the salad is looking like a sauce or the ingredients are indistinct, they're too soft.

Importantly, the cook should remove the potato skins and dress the cooked spuds while the potatoes are slightly warm or room temperature to allow the starch to absorb the dressing.

Black folks take the dish personally: there's our potato salad, and every other version passing itself off as something it's not. No ma'am.

Is this an unfair statement? Sure. Can you trace your family's potato salad back to the village in Italy where your grandmother grew up? That's wonderful. But that's also part of the point. African Americans take our culinary traditions seriously in part due to a history of deprivation. Soul food versions of any dish, potato salad included, can be traced not to a country, but one of the most barbaric of institutions. And frankly, the fact that store-bought potato salad is a distant, many times mutated version of soul food potato salad is no accident.

"This is me, I have no research — just thinking off the top of my head — but think about where most of the black cooks are," Hall said. "Most of them are not necessarily restauranteurs, but they are in food service at hotels or part of the mass greater food service, you know what I mean? So that's how I think black people were able to influence the food for the masses."

"I think a lot of the standards that we see in this country come from black people's cooking," she added.  "You had black people cooking for people who were German or people who were Irish, and they'd have their spin on a dish. So it was whatever the masters were making at the time, or it's whatever the people had in the stores, you know what I mean? If they were the cooks, then they sort of adapted it for their taste, somebody might have made an easier, mass consumer version that was put out there."

The problem is, for most people potato salad means the bastardized, soupy concoction available in the to-go section of the grocery store. I would even wager that most Americans rarely encounter a potato salad that qualifies as good, let alone incredible.

A healthy number of recipes for American potato salad can be found in any number of cookbooks, particularly Southern ones, which would seem to contradict Hall's hunch about the origins of supermarket potato sadness.  But the existence of those the published recipes may back up her theory.

"I was talking to my great aunt who was a cook and she was saying that a lot of black people didn't want to share what they call their 'receipts,' or recipes, because they weren't making the cookbooks. There would be somebody they dictated them to — let's say the white woman, the one who would be making the cookbook. So there is that injustice of people making money off their recipes."

A few years ago a version of a potato salad recipe credited to Eudora Welty resurfaced thanks to the publication of a book titled "The Food of a Younger Land." Welty may have come up with it herself. Who knows? It is interesting to note that even she is a bit dodgy with some measurements; when it comes to making the dressing, she merely writes, "a bunch of mayonnaise and mustard." Also, hers has bacon in it.

None of this is meant to dismiss the personal value of Nana's Potato Salad, by the way, even if it does include the dubious combination of raisins, rosemary and dill. I would never begrudge my friends who grew up with their mother's or grandmother's crème fraiche-based versions, or a German potato salad, one with a vinegar base and a few other spices, their love for their family's food. It simply isn't what I consider to be potato salad, and please don't be insulted if I don't roll my eyes in ecstasy after one bite. And pretty please, with celery leaves on top, don't bring it to my house.

The potato itself is indigenous to this part of the world, originating in South America before eventually making its way to North America. Explorers — some accounts credit the Spanish, others Christopher Columbus — brought the tuber back to Europe, where chefs began boiling them with spices and vinegar, or wine. In America, as settlers pushed westward, potatoes were valued for their relative lack of perishability. And it is from these settlers that we get what is known as the German version of the salad.

But the popular version, as we know it now, is a cold salad largely associated with warm weather but popularly known to be transformed into poison by those same temperatures. There are many ways to make potato salads, but only a few ways to really get it right. This is why to some people, the dish is one of the also-rans of summertime eating.

Hence the frequent sight latecomers often encounter at picnics and outdoor potlucks of a table strewn with remains of tough burgers and leathery hot dogs, the miserable remains of a veggie platter, the scrapes and dregs of condiments. And then you'll see it -- the nearly full, basically untouched tub of grocery store goop, somebody's well-meaning offering transformed by the summertime sun into a bacterium orgy in a bucket.

This is true of just about every function, except for black folks' cookouts and church functions, hosted and contributed to by people know how to cook. Show up late to those events, and the potato salad is likely to be gone.

Food memories are among the strongest we have, for better or worse, but mostly better.  Those of us lucky enough to be raised by people who cook well associate their favorite dishes with certain events and times of year.

Currently I live in a part of the country where I encounter salmon at barbecues more frequently than ribs, and I'm even more likely to come across a vinegar-based potato salad than the creamy goldenrod-colored variety.  However, I grew up learning about food from my mother, an excellent cook who passed some of her greatest recipes down to me.

For reasons unknown, however, her potato salad recipe was not one of them. I'm not even sure that she had a family recipe for it. Mom made a good version, that I know. But when it came time to contribute to church dinners or family cookouts, the prep duty for that hallowed dish fell to someone else.  I have no idea who, but I can tell you that nine times out of ten, those salads were out of this world. (The tenth time my cousin made some bougie sour cream-based business; it stayed in the kitchen. You know, purely out of concern for food safety.)

But here is what my tongue remembers and my heart knows to be true about soul food potato salad: It's yellow and just the right amount of creamy. Ingredients include mayo — or, just as likely, Miracle Whip — a good quality mustard, hard boiled eggs and enough paprika present to resemble flecks of red-orange fireworks in a golden sky. Relish too, and celery in amounts adequate to provide a playful crunch in the midst of tubers cooked to a place between firm and soft, nothing more, nothing else.

That, friends, is American potato salad. No other version need apply to my gatherings.

Also, never forget this  — never add any raisins. Ever.

None of this is meant to intimidate you out of making potato salad for a summer gathering or for someone else's (if they asked you to) because while the margin for error is slim, the reward for success is great.

For the best recipe, ask a church lady.

That's a joke, because no self-respecting church lady at the top of her potato salad game is going to give up her receipts. (Church ladies have the same feelings about their pound cake recipes, FYI. Don't waste your breath. I have tried.)

But as Boseman explains to a reporter at a junket to support "The Avengers," the job of bringing the potato salad to the family cookout has to be earned. To unlock that achievement, you have to start somewhere.

While I am by no means a person confident enough to take my potato salad to a cookout — and for that matter, I'm a TV critic, not a food writer — I work off of a very basic recipe list combines elements from "The Joy of Cooking" with "The Gourmet Cookbook" edited by Ruth Reichl, along with a recipe courtesy of The Neelys, former Food Network personalities.

The main thing is to taste as you go  and have others taste as well, adding salt, pepper and paprika and, sparingly, your own touches like celery. (Not raisins. Never raisins, Karen.)

  • Two pounds potatoes, preferable Idaho or Yukon Golds
  • 3 hard boiled eggs — do not overcook, nobody enjoys green eggs in their potato salad
  • 2 tablespoons of sweet pickle relish
  • Between ½ cup and 3/4 cup of mayonnaise (the Neelys use Miracle Whip)
  • About 3 tablespoons of mustard — enough to give the salad a yellow color, but you don't want it to taste sour
  • Paprika
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Combine the potatoes in well-salted water, covered by at least 2 inches. Simmer then until they are tender, which can take anywhere between 15-25 minutes. Meanwhile, dice two of the eggs.

In a large bowl whisk together your dressing ingredients — the mustard and mayo, salt and pepper, relish, the diced eggs and if you choose, celery. You might enjoy throwing some paprika up in there. Get wild with it. However, don't overdo it on the mayonnaise.

When the potatoes are cool enough to handle, remove their skins. While they're still warm or at room temperature, add them to the dressing, tossing them gently until they're coated. Let the potato salad chill in the refrigerator for at least two hours or overnight.

If you want to add onions, make sure they're finely minced and add no more than 2 tablespoons right before you serve it. As garnish, dust the top with paprika, and decorate with slices of the remaining egg.

There's also Eudora Welty's Vicksburg Potato Salad:

  • a quart of just-cooked, cut-up potatoes
  • 3 chopped hard-cooked eggs
  • a whole green pepper, chopped fine
  • a couple of roasted red peppers, chopped fine
  • 6 strips of crisp bacon, chopped
  • a bunch of mayonnaise and mustard
  • salt and pepper to taste

Her directions are to "mix everything together except the bacon, which you sprinkle on top."  What's great is, if it gets a terrible response, just shrug and remind everybody that she was a famous celebrated writer, not necessarily a chef and probably not  a church lady.

Good luck. And when in doubt, just commit to bringing soda and extra supplies to the cookout.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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