When I was growing up in New England, we went to nearly a dozen cookouts every summer. Each one was the same: grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, corn on the cob, watermelon and potato salad. Standing in line to fill up my plate, I'd always be one step behind my mom. I'd smother my hot dog in yellow mustard and pickle relish, grab a buttery ear of sweet corn and gently balance my paper plate with a juicy slab of chilled watermelon.
At the end of the line, I would pause before the giant bowl of creamy potato salad. But before I could reach out to grab the spoon, my mother would turn around and give me the look that said, "Don't even think about it." It didn't matter how good that bowl of rich, mayo-drenched potato salad looked, potato salad was the forbidden food of the cookout.
• Use waxy rather than floury potatoes, such as Yukon gold, red bliss and fingerlings. They have a creamy texture yet keep their shape well when cooked. Although russet potatoes are exceptionally tender, they don't hold their shape well when boiled and tend to get mushy.
• Cut potatoes into equal-sized pieces so they will cook evenly.
• Don't overcook potatoes. Take them off the heat while they're still slightly firm. Drain and let cool before assembling the salad.
• With or without skins? It's a personal preference. If you leave the skins on, be sure to scrub them well before cooking. Peeled potatoes work especially well for absorbing sauces such as pesto.
• Season the potatoes while still warm to absorb the flavors more fully.
• Warm potato salads taste best the day they are made; however, cold potato salads often taste better the next day. If you're making potato salad ahead of time, hold off on adding raw onions or fresh herbs until just before serving. You'll avoid unpleasant pungency and keep your herbs looking fresh.
There was simply no way my mom was going to chance bringing home her brood, sick from food poisoning. How could we know, after all, how long that potato salad had been sitting in the sun? How could we be assured that it was kept cold from the time it was made? It was too risky. So we never ate it, and we traveled home safe, every time.
Potato salad has been around for many cookouts. It was first introduced to Europe from the New World by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. These early potato salads were made by boiling potatoes in wine or a mixture of vinegar and spices. The more American version of potato salad is rooted in German cuisine and came here with European settlers.
The earliest written recipes for American potato salad date to the mid-19th century. Cooked potatoes were typically dressed with oil, vinegar and herbs, which culinary historians believe were introduced by German immigrants who had a penchant for sour, sweet and spicy ingredients such as vinegar, sugar and coarse mustard. Hot potato salad, usually made with bacon, onion and vinegar dressing, was so closely associated with German immigrants that it was called "German potato salad."
It's unclear who first added the mayo to potato salad. Bottled commercial mayonnaise became available in the early 1900s. Although it wasn't until the 1920s and 1930s, with the introduction of iconic American mayo brands such as Hellman's, Best Foods and Miracle Whip, that mayo-based salads became popular.
Early 20th century American recipes for mayo-based potato salad typically consisted of cooked potatoes and chopped celery seasoned with dried herbs and bathed in creamy mayo. Things haven't changed much in nearly a century. There is no one correct way to make potato salad; numerous regional variations exist, and virtually every American family has its own favorite recipe made with its own secret ingredient.
Since cookout season is upon us, no doubt you'll be invited to one or throw one yourself. Offer to make the potato salad. Sure, you could make traditional mayo-based potato salad, but how about something a bit more nontraditional? I have potato salad recipes that feature ingredients such as Asian lemon grass, Italian prosciutto and purple Peruvian potatoes. Each has its own flavor, though they share a few things in common: They're easy to make, they're really tasty, and they don't contain mayo (so my mom would actually let you eat them).
Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. She is working on a cookbook, Field Guide to Sandwiches (Quirk Books), which will be released in the fall of 2010. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.