Saturday, July 10, 2010
Potato Salad Reflections
Making potato salad yesterday, I found myself enjoying my mom's company. Her breathing body is in a nursing home 300 miles north and her spirit is hidden so deep within that the fiery spirited woman I feared and longed to please is no longer available to any of us. Still, she was present as I stood at my denim blue counter chopping and stirring.
Potato salad is one of those foods that can carry mythic status. Every family has their own variation of what is a very basic combination of potatoes, eggs, pickles and dressing. And often, maybe because it's a summer dish, potato salad has the power to transport a person to the past in the way of a holiday meal.
It was the potatoes themselves that brought Mom into my kitchen. As I peeled the cold, whole, boiled Yukon Golds, then cut them into chunks with practiced rhythm, I pondered how different my salad has become from hers, yet how it retains the same essence and feels like just a better version of my childhood salads.
Potatoes were a staple in our 1960's dairy farm household. By today's standards we lived at the poverty level (maybe below, we didn't know, didn't think in those terms). Spuds were cheap and filling - and we lived in Idaho. The pantry always held at least one 25 pound bag of brown scaly Russets, like plump knobby fists.
And so the first and biggest difference in our salads. Mom's started with what was available and cheap, and sometimes what was leftover from the boiled potatoes we had for dinner the night before. I choose each potato carefully from the bin at my favorite farmer's market, Yukon Gold or red, depending on what's freshest and firmest.
As I peeled and chopped, enjoying the give of the cool firmness beneath my knife and the deep earthy smell, I allowed her to be with me, keeping friendly company. Whether I invited, or she just appeared, we seemed to be enjoying our kitchen time on a hot July afternoon.
We laughed a bit at the fact that I search for the kosher dill pickles that she used, not really knowing why they were her choice. And of course Best Foods as the base of the dressing, nothing else will do. I remembered the time I added celery, thinking to improve on her recipe, and how hurt I was that no one appreciated the change. I could see her smile, transformed finally from smug satisfaction at my failure, to gently understanding at my lesson that some things just aren't meant to be messed with. Another lesson in acceptance that I refused heart and soul then because I simply could not be anything like her.
While I enjoyed the crack and crunch of hard boiled egg shell in my hands, Mom reminded me of her chickens and my first experiences with eggs. A coop full of Rhode Island Reds; the slightly acidic, strongly fertile smell as she handed me eggs still warm from the nests; my five year old pride at being allowed to help. Maybe my first potato salad then, with eggs from our own fat hens and potatoes from the rich Montana soil of the last place I remember feeling loved by her and happy with her.
No chickens on the new farm in Idaho. I only now wonder why she wasn't allowed to have another coop. Probably no time in the desperate need to make the dairy work and the demands of caring for four kids, the oldest seven, when we moved. Grocery store eggs were cheap, but neither of us ever really got used to the uniform white ovals that replaced the works of art produced by hens we'd raised from chicks delivered each year in late winter, the first sign of spring.
I've always bought brown eggs, even knowing that nutritionally it makes no difference at all. I'm comforted by the soft earthen tones. White eggs, like brown potatoes, feel like sadness and poverty to me. As they must have felt to her all those years ago. When I can now, I buy my eggs at the same farmer's market that is my substitute garden. A carton of these eggs offers a palette of color ranging from barely blue to cinnamon toast to cloudy sky. It also offers a sense of closeness to the source and to the Source. More importantly, it offers me a connection to the woman whose company I truly enjoyed in my kitchen yesterday.
When I was done with the chopping and blending and tasting, adding the final sprinkle of paprika which I learned from her, I felt like this potato salad was much more than part of the dinner I was preparing for my brother's visit. This family tradition, made mine with practice and now mine to carry as the eldest, held what's common between my mother and me. A sharing I can finally embrace and appreciate for the tremendous blessing it truly is.