When summer comes around, I’m flooded with fond memories of cookouts back in my New England days. The classic spread never failed to make an appearance: hot dogs, hamburgers, corn on the cob, watermelon, and, of course, potato salad. As I stood in line, eagerly awaiting my turn to load up my plate, I’d watch my mom expertly assemble her meal. A dollop of yellow mustard, a sprinkle of pickle relish, a buttery ear of sweet corn, and a juicy slab of chilled watermelon perfectly balanced on her paper plate.
But there was always one dish that remained off-limits: the creamy potato salad. Every time I reached for the spoon, my mom would give me that familiar look that said, “Don’t even think about it.” She knew better than to risk serving us a potentially hazardous bowl of mayo-drenched bliss. Who knows how long it had been sitting in the sun? How could she guarantee it stayed chilled? It simply wasn’t worth the gamble. So we left the cookout unscathed, never indulging in the forbidden fruit of potato salad.
Potato salad has been a staple at cookouts for centuries. Its roots trace back to the 16th century when Spanish explorers brought it to Europe from the New World. Those early potato salads featured potatoes boiled in wine or a mixture of vinegar and spices. The version we know and love in America, however, has its origins in German cuisine, brought over by European settlers.
The earliest written recipes for American potato salad can be traced back to the mid-19th century. Cooked potatoes were typically dressed with oil, vinegar, and herbs—an influence from German immigrants who had a taste for sour, sweet, and spicy ingredients like vinegar, sugar, and coarse mustard. This variation, often made with bacon, onion, and a vinegar dressing, became known as “German potato salad.”
The addition of mayo to potato salad is a subject of mystery. Bottled commercial mayonnaise became widely available in the early 1900s. However, it wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s, with the introduction of iconic American mayo brands like Hellman’s, Best Foods, and Miracle Whip, that mayo-based salads gained popularity.
Recipes for mayo-based potato salad in early 20th century America typically consisted of cooked potatoes, chopped celery, dried herbs, and a creamy mayo dressing. It’s remarkable how little has changed in nearly a century. There’s no one correct method for making potato salad; regional variations abound, and every American family has its own beloved recipe, complete with a secret ingredient.
Now that cookout season is upon us, chances are you’ll either be attending or hosting one yourself. So why not offer to bring the potato salad? Sure, you could stick to the traditional mayo-based version, but how about shaking things up a bit? I’ve got some nontraditional potato salad recipes that will blow your guests away. Picture Asian-inspired lemon grass, Italian prosciutto, or the striking purple Peruvian potatoes. Each recipe has its own unique flavor profile, but they all have one thing in common: they’re easy to make, incredibly delicious, and, most importantly, mayo-free (which means my mom would actually approve).
So here’s to creating new cookout traditions and exploring the exciting world of potato salad beyond the classic mayo-infused concoction. Don’t be afraid to experiment and surprise your loved ones with a potato salad that will be the talk of the party. And if you’re ever in need of culinary inspiration, don’t forget to check out Family Cuisine for more mouth-watering recipes.