One sunny Saturday each summer, my mom would toss the four of us kids into the car and haul us off to the annual family reunion. Along the way, we would get firm reminders of what polite behavior looked like, and some general threats - no, I would call them promises - of the malice that would fall to us if we scrapped or sulked in front of the relatives.
She didn't need to worry. Presiding over the reunions were my four German great-uncles who were truly giants among men. The shortest of the group checked in around 6'2", and as a child, I remember my knees knocking together as I gazed up, up, up to look at them. Funny that I was frightened though - they were a kindly lot. Very short on words, but always smiling around the cigars clenched between their teeth at the fine youngsters swimming at the shallow end of their gene pool.
No child with an ounce of sense would misbehave in their midst.
^ My grandmother and her nine siblings grew up on a farm in Lapeer County, Michigan. Two of her brothers, my great-uncles, farmed all their lives - Uncle Pat on the original family land and Uncle Mickey on the acreage across the road and down a way.
Our family reunions usually landed in one of their back yards, and one year, I believe at Mickey's place, we discovered an old bulldozer sitting off in a distant field. My elder brother put on his best simulated driving performance and I was his enthusiastic audience.
For what it's worth, those are my father's legs.
But let me backtrack. As my mom was loading us up into the car, she also set a casserole or serving dish of some sort onto one of our laps and firmly instructed, "Make sure this stays safe."
Our family reunions were potlucks, and my mom went all out on preparing a crowd-pleasing side dish.
My mom's favorite dish to bring to family reunions was her seven-bean salad. Green, kidney, navy, black - I can't recall which all she mixed together in her large green casserole dish, and left to marinate in a vinaigrette dressing overnight. She loved that concoction but I must admit, it was too tangy and, well, bean-y for me.
I much preferred her potato salad. Now this was not a German potato salad, as this German family considered typical. My mom's fairly generic potato salad featured potatoes, hard-cooked eggs, celery, and mayo; in other words, it was a perfect blend of basic flavors that felt safe and familiar to our childish palates.
In other words, I loved it.
Decades have rolled by. My dear grand uncles and their sisters, including my grandmother, Clara, have long since passed, and the reunions have slipped into history.
But I promise you, my mom's potato salad lives on.
For every picnic holiday - Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day - all through my daughters' lives, I've whipped up a big batch of these simple, tried and true flavors. Even my husband, good German that he is, used to suggest that my recipe would be improved by some vinegar or at least for heaven's sake some yellow mustard, has given up and given in to my brand of basic.
Oh, the sacrifices we must make for harmony in the family.
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Now to be totally honest, this is the kind of dish best made from memory and gut instinct, rather than a particular recipe.
Normally, a few hours before dinner, I start the cooking process by deciding whether or not I want leftovers, and then choosing either my large or medium sized cooking pot.
Cooking a small pot of potato salad is a language I don't speak.
^ Today I decided to use my large pan: 15 fairly small potatoes, 6 eggs (I might have used 8 but we only had 6), a cup of mayonnaise, a half cup of milk, and celery. This is definitely not enough celery so I sent my husband to the store to buy more.
Once I decide on the pot size, I gather my ingredients and start adding ingredients based on proportions.
^ Let's be honest. As I'm cooking, my potato pot almost always overflows. But as long as the water level stays above the potatoes and eggs - and I can always add more if needed - there is no harm done.
Scrub and cube enough unpeeled red potatoes to fill about 3/4 of the pan.
Tuck in some eggs. I cook my eggs along with the potatoes, and I just eyeball the proportion of egg to potato.
Once the pan is boiling along on medium high, I chop up some celery. Sometimes, if I'm feeling crazy, I add some sweet onion too.
^ True confession. After completing this step, I momentarily turned my back on this bowl to put the milk and mayo back in the fridge. Gracie, who had been politely lying nearby, suddenly lost control. In a flash, she bolted across the room, leaped paws up onto the counter in front of the bowl and got in one or two good licks before I turned around and caught her in the act. So I dumped this bowl of dressing out and started over.
Whisk the half cup of milk, give or take, into the cup of mayonnaise, more or less, to create a creamy dressing that will spread easily and evenly over the salad. If I want to make my husband happy, I might add a little yellow mustard or white vinegar to the dressing at this point.
Set the dressing in the fridge to bide its time.
^ Don't worry if the potatoes are a bit crumbly. All those little bits are going to get stirred up with the dressing and the eggs and the celery, and the end result is going to be creamy heaven.
After about ten minutes, when the potatoes are fork tender, drain the contents of the pot into a colander and run under cool water. Rinse the pan out with cool water too. Submerge the eggs in a bowl of cold water. Hard boiled eggs peel much more easily if they sit in cold water for a spell, immediately after cooking.
Once the potatoes are cooled off and well drained, load the pan back up with first the potatoes,
My husband is still at the store fetching the rest of the celery. I'll add it later.
next the celery,
^ And don't worry about the eggs looking messy either. Once they are chopped and stirred in, they will be adored for their taste rather than their handsome appearance.
and finally peel the eggs and toss them in on the top.
Now tuck the pan into the fridge and tell it to cool its heels till dinnertime.
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Just before serving, pull the pan of potatoes and friends as well as the dressing from the fridge.
Fish out the eggs, dice them into bite-size bits and drop back into the pan.
Pour the dressing into the salad and stir. When the salad looks appropriately well-dressed, stop. If it still looks dry after using all the dressing, mix up another small batch and keep adding till the salad looks good.
Transfer the potato salad or a portion thereof to a serving dish.
If you have time for one more step, snip some fresh chive and present it either on the side or sprinkled over the top.
Serve to small children in the presence of towering uncles and if possible, wink at them and smile as they clean their plates.
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Ready for more stories about my most dearly beloved, tried-and-true homemade meals?