From Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking:
“There is no such thing as really bad potato salad. So long as the potatoes are not undercooked, it all tastes pretty good to me. … When I was young, potato salad was considered summer food. My mother made her mother’s version, which included chopped celery and catsup in the dressing. It was known as pink potato salad and was served at picnics and barbecues as an accompaniment to fried or grilled chicken. No one would ever have thought of serving it in a formal setting. Once I was out on my own and could cook to please myself, I figured that since I loved potato salad so much, other people did, too. I began to serve it to my friends at dinner parties. ‘Oh, potato salad,’ they would say. ‘I haven’t had any homemade in years!’ I gave it to them with thin sliced, peppery flank steak, and with cold roast chicken in the summer and hot roast chicken in the winter. For a while I turned my back on the old-fashioned kind and began to branch out. … But time after time I returned to my old standby: potatoes, scallions, and dill. I must confess that I have never used homemade mayonnaise for this. I use Hellman’s, cut with lemon juice.
“I have a friend, a man in his seventies who fled Vienna on the even of World War II and ended up in Bogota, who once every two years comes to New York. When I first met him, I invited him for dinner.
‘What would you like me to cook?’ I asked him.
‘I am a meat and potatoes man,’ he said. ‘I want hamburgers and that wonderful American potato salad.’
I said I did not approve of cooking hamburgers at home — that they were strictly restaurant food — but that I would make meat loaf. I told him that I made an especially good potato salad.
He appeared one July evening, dressed in a woolly sport coat. We begged him to take it off and he did, revealing a pair of snappy-looking suspenders. Thus liberated, he sat down to dinner. I watched anxiously, wondering what this feinschmecker would make of my potato salad.
‘What do you think?’ I said. I thought it almost perfect: creamy, oniony with just a jolt of vinegar.
‘This is not at all what I had in mind!’ he said forcefully.
‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘This is an A-plus American potato salad.’
‘I did not say it wasn’t delicious,’ he said. ‘It is just not the potato salad I was thinking of.’
‘And what potato salad were you thinking of?’
‘What they serve in the delicatessen around the corner from my hotel,’ he said. I knew the place. It was a Greek coffee shop.
‘But Dr. Hecht,’ I said, ‘that stuff is made in five-hundred-gallon drums and sent all over the city.’
‘Exactly!’ he said. ‘It tastes the same wherever I go. That is its charm.’
He ate three helpings of mine, which mollified me enough to get me to admit that I like the coffee shop variety myself.”
I prefer potato salad made with A-plus American buttermilk dressing, not mayonnaise. Here in Japan, though, the cupboards are bare, buttermilk-dressing-wise. I make do with yogurt. I strain a carton of it until it firms up, then add dry mustard, celery seeds, salt, sugar, onion powder or flakes, the smallest pinch of garlic powder or flakes, lots of freshly ground black pepper, parsley, chives, and occasionally dill or basil. Potatoes are boiled until done, cubed, and while hot doused in pickle juice that the potato quickly absorbs. The yogurt dressing is added to the cool potatoes along with green onions, white or red onions, and pickles. It’s always better the next day. A tart potato salad is an essential accompaniment to fried or barbecued chicken, this is obvious.
The other day I was watching an American talk show and the panel was making fun of a famous celebrity on a TV reality show who demands certain items be available in her dressing room. It wasn’t the six cases of Diet Coke, the 12 Snickers candy bars, or the 10 bags of Doritos the panel thought was bad. It was the request for chicken and potato salad. Potato salad, they said, what is that, her last meal? A picnic? They’d be too embarrassed to even tell anybody they wanted potato salad, they’d have someone sneak it in, and if you actually wanted to eat potato salad you have a real problem. I was extremely offended on behalf of potato salad. I suppose it is considered by those hoping to be urban and hip and cool as a relic of vulgar rural foodways, something only someone’s grandma in Badger Falls, Iowa, still makes by hand, or that beer-bellied men named Bubba enjoy with barbecued meats in the South. Perhaps it’s some prejudice against mayonnaise. I don’t know. But I do know, like Laurie Colwin did, that guests always appreciate a homemade potato salad.