Some foods are mythically Southern, because they have become so ubiquitous in our region that we cannot imagine them not existing. However, these foods had to have been brought into the American South from somewhere and into our lives by someone. In this essay, Shannon Yarbrough interrogates the roots of potato salad, that favorite of picnics and Easter gatherings, and discovers that unearthing its backstory is easier than tracing the narrative of how it came to be a part of his life.
Questions about Potato Salad
by Shannon Yarbrough
For me, as a young boy in the early 1980s, potato salad was always like an estranged relative: it was cold, distant, and I only saw it on special holidays at my grandmother’s house. I was at that naïve age where most vegetables were still foreign to me, especially if served cold. The only “cold foods” I liked were ice cream or ambrosia salad, and ambrosia was the only food with “salad” in its name that I would consider eating as a kid. What kid can resist fruit mixed with whipped cream?
As for distance, potato salad was at the back of the long buffet table set up against one wall in Grandma’s kitchen to hold all of the food. That table was there for Easter, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. I don’t remember ever going to my grandmother’s house and not seeing that table set up with its red gingham-check plastic tablecloth or a festive tablecloth with Easter Eggs or Candy Canes on it.
Being a kid, any food out of reach was also out of mind. Grandma’s potato salad had a rusty powder called paprika sprinkled on it. I couldn’t even say paprika, so I didn’t know what it was. Any condiment unknown to me would certainly be responsible for keeping that dish off my plate. If I couldn’t reach it and I couldn’t say it, I wasn’t going to eat it.
But now, in my mid-forties, my curiosity about food is not so prejudiced. I don’t remember the first time I ever decided to try potato salad. But we all reach a point in our adult lives where we either still hate those alien foods even though we’ve never tried them, or we are much more willing to get to know those distant dishes a little better. I’m one of the latter.
Within the last few years, I perfected my own version of potato salad, which includes the traditional ingredients: potatoes, mayonnaise, pickle relish, and mustard. I was recently making it and began thinking about this bizarre combination of ingredients. I started questioning who came up with this recipe, not just the recipe that I copied from some relative or cooking show, but just potato salad in general.
Most people, including me, think of Ireland when they think about where potatoes came from, and we’re not entirely wrong. Indians in Peru actually cultivated potatoes for thousands of years before the Irish. Spanish explorers who conquered Peru in 1536 first introduced potatoes to Europe. In 1589, Sir Walter Raleigh started growing potatoes in Ireland, but it would take several decades and a French pharmacist for the potato’s popularity to spread.
The Irish discovered potatoes were easier to grow in their rocky soil than corn or wheat. Potatoes also contained lots of vitamins and nutrients, and they could sustain a large family who might not own a lot of land. For this reason, potatoes also became popular hog feed because they were cheap, healthy, and could fatten their livestock. But the French refused to eat anything fed to a hog. They even thought potatoes caused leprosy.
A French pharmacist named Antoine-Augustin Parmentier would make it his life’s mission to change their mind. Parmentier had been fed potatoes as a prisoner during the Seven Years’ War, and he was impressed with the vegetable’s versatility. After the war, he proposed that potatoes could be a good source of nourishment for people suffering from dysentery. Parmentier’s efforts got France to lift a twenty-five-year band on potato cultivation.
To strengthen his cause, Parmentier held notable banquets in which he served various potato dishes. Benjamin Franklin was even a guest at one of these dinners. Today, visitors plant potatoes at Parmentier’s grave, and several French potato dishes are named after him, including Salade Parmentier, which is Potato Salad.
But why do we call it a salad?
The word “salad” actually comes from the Latin word salata, which means “salted things.” Europeans were fond of eating a mix of raw vegetables tossed with herbs and oil. It was the Germans who would eventually blend potatoes with herbs, oil, and bacon fat. Wouldn’t it have been neat to think that Benjamin Franklin might have brought a foil-wrapped dish of potato salad back to the States with him after attending Parmentier’s fancy banquet? It was probably so tasty, it would never have lasted on the voyage home, but nope, it wasn’t him. As Germans immigrated to America in the nineteenth century, they brought their potato salad recipe with them.
In 1905, one of those German immigrants opened a deli in New York City and used his wife’s homemade recipe for mayonnaise. The mayonnaise was so popular, he started selling containers of it to his customers. That immigrant’s name was Richard Hellman! I don’t know if Mr. Hellman was responsible for the addition of mayonnaise to potato salad, but I do know Americans still use his mayonnaise to make potato salad today!
About forty-five years before Richard Hellman opened his New York deli, an American entrepreneur from Pennsylvania was already perfecting his own line of condiments. Henry J. Heinz was recovering from a failed horseradish company, but he was determined to bring other superior condiments to kitchen tables everywhere. His second company, which carried his namesake, branched out to ketchup, mustard, pickles, and a relish called chow-chow. The relish became popular after free samples were offered at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Before Heinz, relishes may have been popular with early colonists because it was an easy way to keep a surplus of vegetables from going to waste. Making them into a relish was also an excellent way to preserve them for winter. The process of making relishes goes back to India again, where chutney was prevalent. Heinz even offered an India Relish, which was chopped pickles mixed with ginger and garlic. At one time, it was their most popular condiment.
Since mayonnaise is made from eggs, the concept of putting hard-boiled eggs in potato salad came quite naturally to someone along the way. We’ve been enjoying hard-boiled eggs for millions of years, ever since Homo Erectus discovered fire and learned how to boil water. Mustard dates back to the Roman era, and our basic yellow mustard can be attributed to Dijon, France. It is believed French’s Mustard was first introduced as a hot dog topping at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Germans were also responsible for developing beer-based and sweet mustards, so they probably experimented with it while perfecting their potato salad recipes.
Since I didn’t become a potato salad fan until much later in life, I decided to ask my mother in Tennessee where that elusive dish originated. Mom’s parents were farmers early in their lives. As a teen, my mother was responsible for watching her younger siblings while her parents and older siblings worked in the field. So, Mom learned to cook at a very early age.
She told me she couldn’t remember if her mother had taught her specifically how to make potato salad, but since she’d taught Mom how to cook, that’s how Mom must have learned to make it. She attributes the addition of paprika to her oldest sister, so my aunt probably brought the potato salad to those family get-togethers all those years later.
Mom also couldn’t remember if her parents grew their own potatoes, but she told me that she and Dad did grow potatoes in their garden when they first married. I thought this was interesting because, as a child, I remember my parents gardening every year, but they never grew potatoes then. Beans, corn, squash, and tomatoes were always the primary vegetables. She could not remember a specific reason why they eventually stopped growing potatoes.
Potatoes were always a staple on our dinner table, usually fried or mashed. My mother doesn’t say “mashed” though; she calls them creamed potatoes. Potatoes were cheap at the grocery store, and Mom even had a special potato bin in the kitchen. To this day, my brother still can’t resist her fried potatoes.
She told me my dad loved potato salad and that she used to make it all the time. Mom’s recipe only included the staple ingredients I mentioned earlier: peeled potatoes, boiled eggs, mayonnaise, and mustard. She never added any other vegetables. However, since my siblings and I were not fond of it all that much, it wasn’t a primary side dish on our dinner table.
I love potato salad now, though. Like the vague details of potatoes that have escaped Mom’s memory over time, I don’t remember when I changed my mind. As I said, my version is probably based on the hundreds of cooking shows I’ve watched over the years, and those recipes are deeply rooted in our distant relatives from France and Germany. Other than the ingredients I mentioned earlier that were also Mom’s recipe, I now include chopped red onions, celery, and one special ingredient.
Instead of traditional mustard, I add something called Durkee’s Sauce, which I learned about by watching Vivian Howard’s PBS show about her restaurant, Chef & the Farmer. Vivian did a spotlight on potato salad, and one of her friends used Durkee’s over mustard. I’d never heard of it before, so I set out to the grocery store to find it. I was not disappointed, and I’ve included it ever since!
I’m also one of those who prefer to leave the peels on the potatoes in my potato salad. I mentioned this to Mom, and she said she never did that for any potato dish. I don’t mind the earthy flavor, but when I’m in the kitchen, I’m not particularly eager to peel potatoes either. And yes, I love serving my potato salad while it’s still warm! By now, you and I both know why I have that preference. I’m okay with eating the leftovers cold, though.
Southerners have a robust cultural connection to food. For that reason, I wish I could say my love for potato salad today could be attributed to my upbringing and my family. So many of us are obsessed with our ancestry these days, and we yearn for the opportunities to speak with our loved ones who are long gone. If only we could go back in time and meet them and ask them questions! As adults living in the present, it’s okay to ponder the past. We can also create our own past and make sure those who come after us don’t forget it.
In a way, I feel the same way about food. That’s why writing down and sharing your recipes is so important. Maybe someone years from now will stop and think about my potato salad. Like those distant relatives who were always around when I was a child, potato salad was always there too. I may not can go back in time and solve my obsessions. But now, forty years later, at least I’m asking the right questions.
Shannon Yarbrough is the author of six novels including Dickinstein, a mash-up of the life of Emily Dickinson with the story of Frankenstein. His holiday family psychodrama Are You Sitting Down? was just released in 2021 as an audiobook and is available on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes. Shannon grew up in Tennessee, and has called St. Louis, Missouri home for the last twenty years.