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Thursday, September 10, 2020


A Potato Salad Mystery

Potato salad isn’t just for July 4th and Labor Day picnics. In some form or another, it’s with us year-round for family meals, restaurant meals, whatever. It’s a staple of the American diet—and yet, few people agree on the “best” potato salad. I once knew a man who ordered cheesecake everywhere it was on the menu because he was always looking for the “perfect” cheesecake. That’s sort of how I feel about potato salad.

I have my likes and dislikes: generally I don’t care for the heavy-on-the-mustard potato salad my daughter likes. Nor do I care for the mashed potato salad that is so common in barbecue joints. I like the version offered at Red, Hot, and Blue because it has large chunks of potato and hard-boiled egg. My son-in-law on the other hand would recoil from any dish that had had-boiled eggs in it. I think my favorite, make-it-at-home recipe is the County Line potato salad—from the Texas barbecue chain with that name. It has lots of dill relish in it. My daughter-in-law Lisa has a similar recipe that uses the relish and pickle juice and is delicious.

And then there’s potato salad without mayonnaise, usually with a vinegar and oil dressing. I make a hot German potato salad that Christian loves. It has a sauce thickened with flour and based on, gulp! bacon grease. Which reminds me that Jordan found a recipe for potato salad with bacon in it. She was intrigued; me, not so much. But you see the wide variety of things that fall under that oh-so-general label of potato salad.

My friend Elaine has no problem deciding which is the “best” potato salad. Elaine grew up in Sweetwater and pretty much longs to live there still. She makes frequent weekend trips to her hometown and when there, always eats at a place she refers to as Mrs. Allen’s. Actually it’s Allen’s Family Meals, a small building on one of the main roads through Sweetwater. Inside, diners sit at a common table and strangers soon become friends. Food is served family style.

It’s the potato salad that draws Elaine. In fact, I’m not sure but that it’s what draws her back to Sweetwater. The trouble is Mrs. Allen apparently doesn’t give out her recipe, and Elaine can’t duplicate the dish. So she brought me some potato salad and a list of ingredients without any quantities or proportion. I can’t duplicate it either. It’s a mashed potato salad and one look identifies the pimiento, but the other ingredients are more elusive. Elaine’s note says “a capful of vinegar and sugar to taste” but there’s no indication of how many potatoes take a capful of vinegar. Here’s Elaine’s list:








I can definitely taste the vinegar and sugar—a tiny bit too sweet for me—and there is the occasional crunch of minced onion. But the mayo is pretty well masked, and if there are eggs, they must be pulverized. The salad is creamy smooth.

If it were up to me, I’d cut back just a bit on the sugar and add more crunch—green onions and finely diced celery probably. But I haven’t a clue how much vinegar, sugar, and mayo are really in it. And as Elaine’s note says, the vinegar and sugar are what distinguish this version of the staple.

Elaine and I would appreciate any help, so if you come up with an approximation of Mrs. Allen’s potato salad, please write me at I’ll ask Elaine to be the official taster.

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