Essay on why potato salad is so important to Black families/communities
Credit: Janna Morton
personal essay

Who Made the Potato Salad?

updated Sep 1, 2020
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I recall going to various family functions as a child and hearing my mother ask, “Who brought the potato salad?” before offering to make me a plate. My mother didn’t care what was in the potato salad or what it even tasted like. She only wanted to know one thing: who made it. 

Once, during a family reunion, we learned that an aunt decided to take it upon herself to make the potato salad. I remember family members piling food on their plates, asking if my mother brought the potato salad, and upon learning that she didn’t, passing quickly over it. Sadly, the bowl sat there untouched, and my aunt left with her pride broken. 

When I asked why no one ate it, my mother responded under her breath, “Because I didn’t make it.” 

For years, I never quite understood why Black people emphasized “who” made the potato salad and why making the side dish seemed like an Olympic sport. With age I began to understand the seriousness connected to the food (there was a movie made in 2006 called Who Brought the Potato Salad? that explores the dish and its relation to the Black family dynamic) and how/why my mother was given the title of resident potato salad queen at all of our family gatherings. 

The only way to truly describe the way my mother made her potato salad is pure, Black joy. With medium cuts of potatoes that taste like an angelic balance of mustard, relish, Lawry’s Seasoning Salt, and mayonnaise, my mother’s potato salad is still something I crave to this very moment. Its light yellow hue with chives and egg rounds to top it off always reminds me of the love and effort my mother put into every bowl. Though I have tried on several occasions to recreate it, I’ve never been able to capture the essence of perfection that is her potato salad. She has shared the recipe with me on several occasions, but to this day I have never been able to master the balance of ingredients.

When I asked my mother how she became the resident potato salad maker, she told me that making potato salad was more than just the balance of flavor and experience; it was also something made out of necessity. “Growing up, we were poor and often [potato salad] was the easiest thing to make when my family was on a budget,” my mother shared. She made it for family gatherings because it was good, but also because it was affordable. “When you have a lot of mouths to feed and very little money to go around, potato salad goes a long way.” 

The only way to truly describe the way my mother made her potato salad is pure, Black joy.

 “In order to understand the importance of potato salad, you really have to understand the history and why Black people hold it to such high regards,” explained soul food historian Adrian Miller. Just like macaroni and cheese (another thing that Black people are EXTREMELY serious about), the making of potato salad is rooted in both history and politics. After talking with Miller for almost an hour, I quickly learned that while it’s just a side for some, for others it’s a retelling of a family’s antiquity.  

“There is a German origin connected to the side dish, but also some connections to slavery,” Miller noted, explaining that it was German immigrants who brought the recipe over to the United States. Miller’s explanation for how potato salad became a popular staple in the Black community made sense considering the German migration that took place in the South during the 1860s. In a 2008 article, Jeffery Strickland examined how German immigrants were a “middleman minority community” in most Southern states between 1860 to 1880. Specifically, he noted that German people had a “relatively positive” relationship with Black Charlestonians (many who were slaves), so much so that the relations between German and African American people shaped the social relations in all of the South. As a result the sharing of recipes, including cold-slaw (what we now call potato salad) became a popular Southern dish in many Black families. 

For many Black people, it’s about keeping the recipe alive because of the story that it tells. In my mother’s case, her potato salad recipe came from my grandmother, a daughter of a woman who was once a slave in Mississippi. My mother’s way of making it wasn’t just about how well she made it, but about the history connected to the recipe she used. 

“It’s all about the apprenticeship model,” Miller explained when talking about who becomes the resident potato salad maker. “Many Black recipes are about who holds the secret and who carries them off. [And] the person who gets to know the secret isn’t automatic. Not everyone wants you to know their secret, especially if the secret has a rich personal or historical connection.” 

For my mother, her becoming the go-to person for potato salad was exactly that. “There were several reasons why the family wanted me to make the potato salad coming up,” my mother said with a light chuckle. “One, it was because they knew it would be good. I had your grandmother’s recipe memorized and specific details about how to make it like no one else could. That’s often how recipes get passed down in the Black community — you watch and learn and out of necessity. But more than that, over time I began to make it my own and I guess the family just liked the way I made it and trust that it would always be good.” 

When my mother made potato salad it not only connected her to the amazing memories that she had with my grandmother as a child, but it also offered her the opportunity to show her love through something that was in her budget. “That’s how Black people show they love one another. Through food, because sometimes that is the only thing we have.” 

That’s often how recipes get passed down in the Black community — you watch and learn and out of necessity.

So what makes a good potato salad? “Well, I don’t want you going out into the world telling all my secrets,” my mother added, reminding me to keep the recipe in the family. “The one thing I will tell you to tell folks is to boil your potatoes with onion. You don’t have to use the onion in the potato salad, but the onion offers the potatoes a lot more flavor. It’s about the love you blend with the flavor.” 

Like my mother, Miller believes that being given the title of potato salad maker is just about that, the flavor. “As a soul food cook you always want to bring your own originality to what you cook. But the best compliment you can get is someone saying ‘You make it just like so-and-so.'” 

My mom added her own touches to her potato salad despite being poor. “You look for ways to enhance your meals because you know that might be the only thing you’ve got to keep you happy in the moment.” My mother’s enhancement? “It’s a little sugar,” she said with a big smile on her face. “There are a bunch of other things I put in to enhance it, but the one thing I will let you get away with sharing is the sugar. Because sugar just makes everything better.”