If the American "civil religion" has a side dish, it is potato salad: From Memorial Day to July Fourth to Labor Day, if we're celebrating our soldiers, our freedom, our workers or, really, just the fact that we get a damn day off from work and grill, potato salad is there for us.
Unfortunately, as with actual religion, nobody can agree on the tenets. The ideal version of potato salad looks different almost everywhere because region, economic class, ethnic origin, family preferences and history define what your potato salad looks like. Some like it hot, some like it cold; some like it white, some like it yellow; some like it with mayo and others without; and nobody but nobody likes Karen's version with the raisins ... or do they?
Potato salad, you can say, is the most controversial summer dish known to American culture. (With apologies to the ongoing nonsense about whose barbecue is better, real or the tastiest.)
Like many people, potato salad is the one dish that, done wrong, can ruin an entire meal for me. The experience of it is so weighted with memories of my mother's painstaking dedication to selecting red potatoes from the farmer's market, one by one, boiling the eggs perfectly — no greenish yolks for her — and then painstakingly dicing bell peppers, onions and celery. She selected just the right mustard and only ever used one brand of mayonnaise (Duke's), while adding dashes of salt, celery seed, garlic powder, paprika and black pepper, fresh lemon juice, and other things I can't reveal lest I get attacked by flying cast iron animated by the spirits of my family's matriarchs.
To be honest, my mother's potato salad was more than just summer get-together food; like many African American and Southern families, potato salad was a year-round accompaniment, a life cycle food, a family reunion food, a celebratory food and a get-each-other-through-it food. It was also a test of my ability to passably execute a family recipe. It's one of the 25 recipes my mom felt she needed to write in her own hand with minute instructions like "I know you're not going to listen to me, Michael, but..."
Now that I hold the mantle, making the potato salad feels sacred.
But outside of my family, bad potato salad seems all but ubiquitous — runny, overly sweet, with mushy, overcooked potatoes, generic condiments (Hellman's, a blasphemy) and absolutely no flavor or soul. It is, often, nearly as white as the bowls in which it is served, as though if a red potato skin or pepper touched it would be a mortal sin. My Lord, deliver us all from a potato salad that matches a polar bear's fur!
And yet, there are a ton of people who would disagree with my family recipe, who might not have embraced the gospel of Duke's or the communion with fresh vegetables. My fiancé likes my potato salad ... as long as I make him a separate batch of his.
And so, like a child raised to believe that my church is the only true one, I have had to suspend the idea that I or my culture owns the sole, true potato salad. It may have its place in African American and Southern cultures — do your own Venn diagram — but it is not exclusively of my worlds. Boiled root vegetables tossed with oils and vinegars have a European pedigree; the potato — the world's favorite Andean tuber — now stands in for turnips, carrots and parsnips of the dish's European ancestors, and together they danced well with the pantry staples of many cultures.
Knowing potato salad's diversity of origin, I have embraced its diversity of gospels.
While everyone stateside insists on their family recipe, variations are as different as the families living side-by-side who make them. We may side-eye Karen, but she could have a very good reason for her potato salad, and we would all like to hear it.
Casually surveying respondents on social media gave me a wide variety of scripture to work from.
The potatoes themselves: In the United States, russet potatoes, otherwise known as baking potatoes, cut up and boiled, win the day. In our family different varieties of red potatoes were preferred. Some of my respondents suggested fingerlings, baby potatoes, even Yukon golds. Texture, color, starch are all holy matters.
When it comes to condiments, it turns out that mayonnaise is not the gospel truth. (Some people really hate mayonnaise.) Some potato salads don't require it or need it at all. For those that do, Hellman's was the clear winner among Midwesterners and Duke's among Southerners (Duke's is a really good, tangy, sugar-free mayo). Some people even said Miracle-Whip. Some German-based potato salads use bacon grease, while an Italian version or three used balsamic vinegar, olive oils and capers to keep the potatoes moist and flavorful.
Add-ins are the most controversial area of all, as the chapter and verse of potato salad, and not a single ingredient can claim absolute inclusion. Even celery, onion, bell pepper and hardboiled egg cannot withstand criticism or revulsion. Just take my distant cousin from southeast Texas (by way of Louisiana) who told me that she used "tons of eggs, mayo, a lil' mustard, chopped pimentos, lots of sweet relish, celery seed, fresh parsley, Cajun seasoning, always garnish with paprika," but that she never used onions, bell peppers or celery.
A reader, whose personal recipe includes eggs, celery and pickles, topped with paprika and sliced green onions, said that her Finnish grandmother's was made "with cooked carrots and beets, and sometimes pickled herring."
A self-described white home cook from Alabama suggested substituting chopped red radishes for celery to get the crunch, but regularly uses eggs, Spanish olives and mustard "the way my aunt made it when I was a kid."
Another reader, whose heritage is Eastern European, went with the traditional American Idaho potatoes and celery, but then added "chopped up pickled watermelon rind, half mayonnaise-half sour cream mixture, sugar, salt, and dill."
And a half-Japanese follower, who said that in his family "potato salad is a staple and is even used as a sandwich filling" added that "Kewpie mayo is a must. Onions very thin. I also use small 'Persian cucumbers.'"
After hundreds of responses and hours of conversation, I decided to close the holy books.
Potato salad has moved from fixed fundamentalism to a moveable oral scripture like the Talmud, with endless interpretation and not a lot of agreement on the absolute right way to go. After soul and stomach searching, I resolved to go ecumenical.
Maybe we should all show up at the cookout with just enough potato salad for ourselves and for a few spoons to let others try our "faith." As for me and my house, we will guard our sacred salad jealously.