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Southern Salads: Potato Salad

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Potato salad is serious business in the South. While it’s true our favorite potluck offering has strong German roots, a lot of folks hold true to the idea that, once again, Southerners have taken a pretty good dish, kicked up the “zip” factor and proclaimed the new-fangled version a Southern classic.

But it’s the competitive nature of Southern cooks that launches potato salad out of the realm of “anyone can make it” into the heightened domain of “skilled craftwork.” Have you noticed that not just anybody gets invited to supply the potato salad for the family barbecue? That’s right. Nearly every Southern family has that one member who wears the badge of “Supreme Potato Salad Maker.” And said person is usually an aunt, grandmother or some other well-respected person who has spent years in the kitchen earning the coveted title.

So, what makes potato salad “Southern?” Good question. Some folks say it’s the sweet pickle relish. Some will insist it’s the Duke’s mayonnaise preferred by so many Southern cooks. Others point to the addition of mustard, which adds that buttery yellow hue. And some will swear the Southern-ness comes from slices of hard-boiled egg incorporated into the mix. More than likely, it’s a combo of all these things that screams “Made in the South.” A dusting of paprika is a revealing clue, as well.

When it comes to its rightful place on the table, potato salad typically lands within easy reach of the hungry crowd at picnics, potlucks, holiday dinners and church suppers. Smoked swine might appear to be the prominent dish at such gatherings, but don’t be fooled—a big bowl of skillfully prepared Southern potato salad is the real star. Just watch how quickly it disappears.

Ready to begin the sojourn to your family’s potato salad throne? It’s never too late to get started. Here’s a recipe that has all the nuts and bolts of a solid Southern potato salad. Onion and celery are optional, but they lend a sweet crunch. Get cooking, tweak if the spirit moves you, and earn those bragging rights.

Classic Southern Potato Salad

Ingredients
2 lbs. potatoes, peeled and cubed (russet works well)
2 tbsp. white vinegar
1 tbsp. prepared yellow mustard
½ cup sweet pickle relish
½ cup chopped sweet onion
½ cup celery, sliced
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and sliced
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tsp. salt, divided
¼ tsp. pepper
paprika, to garnish

Place potato cubes in a 3-quart pot and cover with cold water. Add ½ teaspoon salt and bring the water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook the potatoes, uncovered, until tender. Drain well and set aside to cool. In a large bowl, mix vinegar, relish, mayonnaise, mustard, remaining salt, and pepper. Add potatoes, celery and onion. Using a large spoon, coat well. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Top with egg slices and sprinkle with paprika. Serve immediately or chill until suppertime.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.