I am very blessed to still have a grandmother. Her name is Eva (pronounced ee-vah), and aside from being one of the most loving and kind people in my life, she is an amazing (if not quite health-conscious) cook. With Irish and German roots, she grew up cooking my great-grandfather a dozen eggs for breakfast every day. So, as you can imagine, her cuisine is a hearty stock meant to fuel hearty bodies through southern-sun-drenched hours of grueling labor. Cooking for her is beyond an art form–it’s a good ol’ practical means of satisfying both the soul AND the body–all the while “stickin’ to your ribs” — lasting a lengthy, exhausting workday, at that.
Of course, if she knew I was going on about her like this, Grandmaw would definitely give me one of “those” looks over her glasses and say “Boy, I’m gonna get you.” She really is a humble and proud Southern lady. One time (in fact, the only time in the seventy years since she and my Granddaddy built the place), she spent a single night away from her home. She’d had a “sinking spell” after cooking Christmas dinner and I spent the night with her at the hospital. And the funny thing is: more than the fear of being out of her element, she was embarrassed that everyone was paying so much attention to her!
Grandmaw cares — about everyone — she really, truly cares, and she shows it. She has this ability to make every single person feel special, like they’re the only one in the room. Even though old age has her dentures clacking when she talks, and she can barely get around anymore, strangers are always met with a huge smile, open arms and an ever present “Can I get you something to eat? Are you hungry, honey?”
Now then, I’ll share a little secret with you all: for as long as I can remember, Grandmaw has made THE best potato salad. In fact, when my friends know I’m going to her house for dinner, they always ask me to smuggle some back. Alas, I rarely can, because it never makes it to the end of the meal. It’s so special that friends and I have stood around and watched her make it from scratch on numerous occasions – the surprising agility in her wrists as she beats eggs, the way she confidently mixes and turns everything and then mixes some more. And of course, her inevitable adding and adding of vinegar. “It’s got to be sour enough,” she says. It’s a beautiful ‘potato-salad-for-the-soul’ kind of experience.
But what makes her potato salad so special? Her secret ingredient: heat. Sure, everyone can (and does) make their dressing with mayonnaise, but Grandmaw adds heat, cooking the dressing to make it stick. That one simple step makes all the difference.
Of course, this is about more than potato salad. It’s about my grandmother knowing she had something good, and not letting anyone talk her into doing it the easy way. Other people might buy pre-made potato salad because it’s “just a side dish” – but Grandmaw Eva knows that the extra work is worth it. This simple dish has given my family so many wonderful Sunday suppers, cook-outs, even Christmas dinners (by my request!). It’s given us some funny memories, too – like the time at a picnic, Grandmaw’s best friend Eileen (yup, Eva & Eileen – and I believe Elsie was there that day too) was raving about the salad so intently, she didn’t notice that a fly had landed right on her forkful as she was bringing it to her mouth, and she ate it right up. We laughed so hard we cried, and then we laughed some more.
The lesson: Quality, tradition and standing by what you know is right…that’s the real secret ingredient.
Grandmaw’s Potato Salad Recipe:
- 5 pounds of potatoes
- 2 medium onions
- 2 cans of evaporated milk
- 4 eggs
- 3/4 c granulated sugar
- 1 heaping tablespoon of flour
- 3/4 c apple cider vinegar
- 8 pinches of salt
- 1 tbs of pepper
- 2 cups of mayo
Boil the potatoes until they’re nice and soft (but not too soft). Chop the onions finely and set aside.
In a large saucepan, cover the evaporated milk and let it come to a boil.
Beat the eggs in a bowl, then mix in 3/4 cup of granulated sugar and that heaping tablespoon of flour. Add 3/4 c of apple cider vinegar.
Once the potatoes have boiled, peel, quarter and salt ‘em generously (about 8 pinches should do). Then toss those onions into the mix and pepper to taste (about a tablespoon).
Add the egg mixture to the heated evaporated milk and return to boil, stirring occasionally. The mixture will thicken pretty quickly into a chunky custard-like consistency. Grandmaw is always concerned as to whether or not it’s “sour enough”, and will almost inevitably add more vinegar at this point. Give it a taste and see how you feel. Once it’s sour enough, pour the mixture over the potatoes and mix thoroughly. Stir in about 2 to 2 ½ cups of mayo then refrigerate. Tastes better when it’s had some time to sit.
Serves ~12 large farm hands.