A potluck dinner lesson
by Erika Council (Gravy, Spring 2017)
“You can make the potato salad. I bet you make that really well.” At least that’s what I think the woman said, while handing me a sign-up sheet for our neighborhood potluck dinner. Surely she did not just say that. I looked around the room. I was the only black person. She assumed because I am black, I could cook anything. Including potato salad.
I ignored her, hoping she would recognize her error. Instead, she tried again.“We’re hoping you would make potato salad for the dinner,” she said. “That’s like, a soul food specialty, right?” She leaned in closer, whispering, “soul food,” as if saying it out loud might cause her to lose standing with Jesus.
At this point, three other women joined the conversation and waited for my response. Mentally counting to 600, I tried to temper my patience. This didn’t work.
“Soul food?” I repeated, making a grand gesture of looking over my shoulder as I whispered the word. “You know, I’ve never made potato salad. Is that like tuna salad?” This was, of course, a lie, but I said it with a straight face. The four women looked at me in disbelief. Among this group, it seemed a preconceived notion that potato salad is a soul food specialty and that I, the only black person in the room, should be the resident expert. I promised to see what I could do.
“You know, I’ve never made potato salad. Is that like tuna salad?”
What was their idea of potato salad? Does it have fried chicken crumbles or collard greens mixed in? (On second thought, that sounds like something I should try.) In my family, potato salad was always a Sunday supper staple. The ingredients were straightforward: mayo, mustard, potatoes, eggs, celery, and tangy pickle relish.
My friend’s German grandmother made great potato salad. She had soul. Maybe I should have asked if she was available to cook for the dinner. Instead, I kept my promise. I created potato salad that looked and tasted nothing like what they expected. To fingerling potatoes roasted in pork drippings, I added chives and lemon juice. I tossed everything with mayo. Since this was supposed to be a salad, I threw in arugula. I held off on the fried chicken crumbles and collards.
On the day of the community dinner, I placed my large bowl on the table. The dish received a few odd looks before people dug in. Soon after, folks went back for seconds. They whispered about how the dish was strange, but delicious. Today, three years since launching my Sunday supper series, that potato salad has become one of my most requested dishes. When I’m asked how it came to be, I laugh and say, “Well, let me tell you a story.”
ROASTED POTATO SALAD
For a vegetarian spin, toast the potatoes in olive oil or grapeseed oil and skip the pancetta.
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 cup pancetta, diced
- 12 fingerling potatoes, halved (any white potato on hand will do)
- Kosher salt to taste
- ½ cup of mayo, such as Duke’s
- 1 Tbsp. yellow mustard
- 1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 Tbsp. fresh chives, minced
- 1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups arugula leaves
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Heat a large cast iron skillet to medium high. Add the olive oil and pancetta and cook until crispy, about 10 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the pancetta and drain on a paper towel-lined plate. In the same skillet, add the potatoes and cook in the fat for about 10 minutes or until they turn slightly golden.
Place the skillet in the oven and roast the potatoes for about 15 minutes, or until they are golden brown and tender on the inside.
While the potatoes are roasting, whisk together the mayo, mustard, lemon juice, chives, and pepper in a large bowl. When the potatoes are finished, fold them into the mayo mixture. Toss in the arugula and pancetta. Serve while warm.