It has often been said that without potato salad, barbecue would not be possible. While this may be a bit of an exaggeration, it would be unusual to go to a picnic, or pot-luck gathering without finding at least one container of this creamy, delicious gift to the world from the Americas. The Fourth of July (Independence Day) without potato salad would be like Thanksgiving with no turkey, or Christmas with no stockings.
To understand potato salad, you have to understand potatoes. They have a long, and distinguished history, having saved many large populations from total starvation in hard times throughout the ages. Potatoes were originally only native to the New World. We know from archeological evidence that potatoes were used as far back as the 5th century BC by the Incas, who not only ate them, but worshiped them and buried them with their dead. We can be reasonably sure they were also used by most other pre-Columbian cultures. The original ‘wild’ potato, before cultivation created new species, was a purplish-skinned, yellow fleshed variety that is still grown, and marketed as Purple Potatoes. These have a soft creamy texture, and a sweet flavor when cooked. One of the first cultivated varieties was the red-skin potato, with a soft flesh, and wonderful earthy flavor. Other species were developed for size, firm texture for baking, and resistance to cold and diseases. In the modern world, there is a potato for every purpose.
When Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Peru in 1532 looking for gold, they found the potato instead. They took tons of potatoes back to Spain, after it was discovered that sailors who ate the pappas (Inca word for potatoes) did not suffer from scurvy, a common nutritional deficiency suffered by people long at sea with no access to vegetables (personally, I think the potatoes were a much better deal than the gold would’ve ever been). Potatoes soon spread throughout Europe, and many a poor nation, Ireland for one, were able to feed their starving populations with this cheap, and easily grown resource.
The first mention of anything resembling a potato salad wasn’t until 1597, when British author John Gerard described potatoes soaked in red wine, and dressed with oil, vinegar and salt. Potatoes were re-introduced to the New World with early colonists. It is almost certain that one type of potato salad originated with the Germans. Accustomed to a hearty diet of sausages and sauerkraut, they developed a love for bacon and hot vinegar. When the spud (slang for potato) made its way to the Germanic provinces, they embraced it wholeheartedly and made an exquisite dish from cooked potatoes, hot vinegar, bacon bits and drippings, that is still enjoyed by millions as German Hot Potato Salad. German immigrants undoubtedly brought this recipe with them when they colonized America. The French tried to go even one better by using red-skinned potatoes, a full-scale vinaigrette, Dijon mustard, and sweet tarragon. This is French Potato Salad, and it is delicious with any kind of broiled or baked fish, and even compliments a grilled chicken breast fillet.
What we recognize as potato salad in America did not appear until the latter half of the 19th century. On June 3rd, 1899, Ezra Bovine, an alcoholic potato farmer, served a dish of mashed boiled potatoes mixed with mayonnaise and onions at the Grand Opening of the Twin Falls Bar and Grill, in Twin Falls, Idaho. He brought it just to take advantage of the free beer, but the dish caught on. Others improved the recipe by adding other ingredients such as mustard, paprika, boiled eggs, and more. Today, there are as many different varieties of potato salad as there are cooks.
Potato salad can be classified into 4 main categories:
German Hot Potato Salad-characteristically tart, and vinegary with a wonderful smokey bacon finish, served hot. The absolute best with Bratwurst, Schnitzels, and other smoked sausages. French Potato Salad is an off-shoot from this style.
Northern Potato Salad-a misnomer, because it is enjoyed in the south as well. It is more prevalent above the Mason-Dixon line, hence the name. If you are wondering what kind of potato salad you will get in a restaurant, a good rule of thumb is that when you no longer see Krispy Kreme Donuts, Krystals, or Waffle House restaurants, you are probably going to get Northern Potato Salad, and only unsweetened tea, (and don’t even think about asking for grits). Northern Potato Salad, like most northern food, is simple and hearty. It is basically boiled potatoes, usually red skinned, unpeeled, cut into chunks and mixed with mayonnaise, onions, celery, and spices. Northern potato salad has a full-bodied, earthy, but neutral taste that goes with just about everything you can imagine, including eggs and bacon. It is neither sweet, nor tart, so it will not clash with any other flavors.
Southern Potato Salad-also known as ‘Country Potato Salad’. A standard at barbecues, weddings, funerals, and any other social gatherings here in the South. It is a spicy, and sometime downright hot, variation using mashed potatoes, onions, pickle relish, mustard, and other assorted ingredients, including jalapeno peppers, garlic, horseradish, Louisiana Hot Sauce, cucumbers, and anything else lying around. It is usually topped with sliced, or diced boiled eggs (which may also be in the salad) and paprika. The basic version is just mashed potatoes, onions, pickle relish, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste. Instant mashed potatoes are frequently used to save time. This potato salad can range from mildly spicy and tangy, to fogging-your-eyeballs-up hot. I’ve noticed that how hot the potato salad (and sometimes coleslaw) is depends on how much beer the person has had while preparing it. It could just be a coincidence……
Whatever style of potato salad is served, it is a treat not to be missed. Here are some of my favorite recipes:
Basic Northern Potato Salad
This is simple, filling and lets the earthy goodness of the red-skinned potatoes really stand out.
6 red-skinned potatoes, cubed and boiled
1 onion, diced
1-1/2 cup Sour Cream
1 cup mayonnaise
1 cup chopped celery
salt and pepper to taste
In a large mixing bowl, place potatoes, onion and celery. In another bowl, mix the sour cream and mayonnaise together. Pour over the potato mix. Add salt and pepper and toss until the mix is completely coated. Chill well before serving.
Basic Southern Potato Salad
6 large white potatoes, peeled, boiled and mashed, or you can use instant mashed potatoes. Just be sure to add plenty of butter or margarine, and salt when reconstituting them, or they will be bland.
2 boiled eggs, sliced
one onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
¼ cup mustard (if this is too tart for you, you can thin it down with a little mayonnaise)
¼ cup pickle relish, or chopped pickles, dill or sweet, your choice.
Salt and pepper to taste
Place potatoes, celery and onions in a large mixing bowl. Add mustard and pickles and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Garnish by placing sliced boiled eggs on top, and sprinkling with a little paprika. Chill well before serving.
Basic German Hot Potato Salad
6 potatoes, boiled and sliced into 1/2” thick slices (you can peel them, or not..your choice)
½ cup cider vinegar
½ cup water
5 slices of cooked bacon, diced
2 Tbsp bacon drippings
1-1/2 Tbsp flour
1 Tbsp sugar or sucralose (Splenda)
1 Tbsp mustard
salt and pepper to taste
In a medium sized pot, fry bacon, dice and set aside. To the hot bacon drippings, whisk in flour slowly, making a semi-thick gravy. Add sugar, salt, pepper and mustard. Slowly add vinegar and water, stirring to keep the mixture smooth. Simmer until desired thickness is reached, then add potato slices. Mix well and continue to simmer until the potatoes are hot. Adjust taste with salt and pepper. Add bacon bits, mix well, and serve immediately.