Every family cookout since — well, probably before I was even around — my family has always been excited for one specific dish. We’re vegetarians, so it’s usually not burgers or hot dogs (except those new Impossible ones). No, it’s something much simpler, much more humble in the pantheon of summer deck foods: potato salad.
Yeah, it seems strange that my Nana’s potato salad would be the thing that usually garners the most attention on the picnic table or the counter. After all, if you’ve ever tasted some of that store-bought, premade stuff, all pasty white and flavorless, then you know most potato salad tastes sort of like lumps of starch glued together with cream. (Even if someone might have spent three days making that salad — three days!)
But, readers, you must trust me on this — not this potato salad. Oh no. Never the golden potatoes, peeled delicately and washed in the sink. Not the mustard that is so rarely seen in cold-packed salads. Not the way my grandmother told me to measure the salt and pepper by eye, “just a skosh.”
Ever since I was a kid, after all, I remember it being the only dish of its kind that carried that wonderful flavor — and that feeling of family. It reminds me of cookouts, of my Nana’s old house, of the time she pulled me aside to write down the recipe to her “famous” salad on an index card, slipped it into an envelope and told me I was going to have to be the keeper of her secret ingredient from here on out. (I can’t reveal it here, of course, but rest assured it’s something you probably have in your fridge right now.)
It was so, so special to me, as that kid in her old, copper-ceilinged kitchen. Something so sacred in my family, something that was always at the center of the summer spread. I don’t remember now if my Nana told me outright, but I think we both knew that it was sort of a passing of the potato torch.
She’s still going strong, of course — when she hosts events at her house in the summer, a familiar yellow serving bowl holds the same salad I’ve come to love. But someday, I think, I’d like to make it for myself. For my family someday, on my own. After all, I still have that note card, tucked somewhere in my room. I’ve been entrusted with it.
It might seem silly, I suppose, from the outside. Of all the things to hold close to your heart, potato salad certainly isn’t the most valuable (or the best for you, considering all the mayonnaise). It certainly isn’t a ring or a watch or another valuable passed through the generations. It’s nothing material, other than writing and paper and taste.
But, I contest, that is just what makes it worth so much. So many of my childhood memories are colored by the warmth of family gatherings, of helping my Nana in the kitchen, of things we confided in each other. That recipe, sitting in my room, is more than just measurements; it’s something from my Nana herself, something that she made for me, something that I will in turn remember and make again. And, someday, I will pass it down again. So on, so on.
So, if you can, go to your parents or your grandparents or your friends. What is your favorite homemade meal? Ask them to write down the recipe, to teach you how to make it for yourself. If you can learn, you will have something from them to carry with you for the rest of your life. Something that takes work and time and effort, and, in turn, feels so wonderfully deserved.
Yes, it might sound silly when it is so elegant to remember someone by gazing at a jewel or a gold wristwatch. But I’d much rather be eulogized at dinner, in the warmth and the togetherness of people who I’ve loved. In the recipes and the memories passed down through generations. Plus, I promise, you just can’t beat the taste.
Cameron Gorman is a columnist. Contact her at [email protected]