Pandemic Potato Salad

The Saga of the Pandemic Potato Salad – Comfort Food Through the Generations

Potato saladWhat does potato salad remind you of? To me potato salad is summer days, picnics, family, tailgating at the beach. Happiness.

I am calling this story “the pandemic potato salad saga which reached out and brought comfort from the past.”

At the beginning of the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, the call went out across the family network. S.O.S! My middle sister wanted to make potato salad. Not just any potato salad – the potato salad from our childhood. The way our Polish immigrant grandmother made it. So, I looked through my recipe files – something else I’ve been meaning to organize. And yes, I found it! Not only do I have it, it is handwritten in my grandmother’s hand with notes lovingly explaining how to make it, addressed to her daughter-in-law, my mother.

Katarzyna Walczak WhiteWho was she, my grandmother, to remind us of comfort at this time? Katarzyna (Catherine) Walczak White was born in 1909. She emigrated from Andrychow, a small town in southern Poland, in 1913. She was four years old. She made the 4,000-mile journey with her two older brothers, barely teenagers themselves. What must it have taken to send your three children, one of them four, to the U.S.? It was a dangerous journey from Southern Poland to Antwerp and on to New York City. Although I’ve read the history of the time, I cannot imagine what conditions must have been like in Southern Poland to take such risks.

Despite the hardships and danger, the trio arrived on October 17, 1913.

Journey

Immigrants arriving in NY harbor
Arrival in New York

Catherine, my grandmother, became a nutritionist and baker for hospitals and later, for schools. She is the one who taught me to bake from scratch. Like most cooks, she baked by sight and touch. Nothing was written down; everything was in her head. Her specialties were cakes from scratch, pies, pasta, dumplings, cookies…and of course, potato salad. Before I could see the top of the table where she baked, I was fascinated. Later I would write down recipes as best I could. I still have some of them. Little did I know at the time that my handwritten recipes would provide comfort and memories decades later during our own trying times.

Unfortunately, my grandmother died young when she was 57; I was only a teen. Through the years, especially now, I wish I had more time to learn from her. And about her. I have so many questions. What were her memories of the trip to the U.S.? How did she learn to cook? But I cherish the memories that I do have.

Why does comfort food trigger powerful memories? We know there is a link to sight and smells, and I am sure scientists can tell us about the physiology. But to me, comfort foods link to memories of gatherings. Of family occasions and tailgate picnics each Friday evening at Clearwater Beach.

And the potato salad recipe? It’s rare to have a copy of a recipe in her handwriting. I was delighted to have the recipe that was so lovingly handwritten. Each fold and stain is a memory – about how often it was pulled out, placed on the counter where ingredients were chopped, and mixed by hand.  Ready for another memory. Now it has been scanned and sent electronically to the 2nd and 3rd generations of our families.

Recipe

It reaches back over time and links us. Generation to generation. This is the potato salad saga of the pandemic and the comfort that it brought through generations past – and hopefully will bring to those to come.

 What is Polish cuisine?

Polish cuisine reflects its geography and hundreds of years of history. For centuries Polish cooking has had competing influences from France and Italy, while also borrowing extensively from more exotic locations: Tartar, Armenian, Scandinavian, Lithuanian, Cossack, Hungarian, and Jewish.

Traditional Polish cookbooks are full of recipes using ingredients that we may find unusual. Sour cabbage, cucumber, dried mushroom, curdled milk, and sour rye are but a few.

Cabage Rolls

Regional Stuffed Cabbage Rolls (Regionalne Gołąbki),  have been a known part of Polish cuisine for centuries, made with a variety of fillings wrapped in fresh or pickled cabbage leaves.

But above all, cooking the Polish way also means putting your heart into it.

Smacznego! (Enjoy your meal!)

For more about Polish cuisine, I found this television show, Flavor of Poland, on PBS Create. Recipes and episodes are on their website at: https://www.flavorofpoland.com/

Old photos of Andrychow
Andrychow in the past

 

Aerial view of Andrychow today
Andrychow today

White-diane-headshot-01Diane White, MA, PMP, earned advanced degrees in information technologies from George Washington University and education from USF.  She has been managing projects for over 25 years in the information technology and telecommunications industries.  She joined OLLI-USF in 2008 and has taken OLLI courses in art, art appreciation, architecture, music, great books, science, nature, literature, and leadership.  She is a member of OLLI’s Tech Squad, teaches a variety of technology courses, and is OLLI Connects’ technology contributor and consultant. And she’s a member of the “Food! Glorious Food” SIG and is a Tech Moderator for OLLI’s online classes.


 

21 Replies to “Pandemic Potato Salad”

  1. Diane, you brought tears to my eyes, in that happy-sad way loving memories do. Your family story has many similarities to my family’s. All of my grandparents are from Poland, and my dad arrived at age 1 after barely surviving the voyage. My maternal grandmother cooked and baked on a wood burning stove. I tried in vain to write her placek (coffee cake) recipe, but she never even used the same cup for flour regularly. Truly it was all by eye and my feel, “Our” potato recipe is a bit different but one I’d been thinking of for days now and had added some ingredients to my shopping list so I could make it this week. Indeed some of my most cherished recipes are those well worn hand written ones. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. I start my day feeling closer to my roots. Reminders of such blessings are themselves a blessing. 🙏🏻

    1. Thank you Bobbie. You are right, it’s a happy-sad memory. I cannot imagine taking a 1 year old on such a trip. Those are the best recipes, aren’t they. The ones that are hand-written and well-worn.

  2. Such a wonderful reminiscence, Diane. I’m in awe of your grandmother and her two brothers who made that journey into the unknown. The situation in Poland must have been very dire to send them from their parents to the this country when we were kinder and gentler to immigrants.

    1. Hi Judy, thank you for your comments. I know it’s not a unique story yet being personal it resonates. I don’t think I would have had that courage.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your family memories. Yes, many of us have kept our heritage living on through recipes and family stories. For 20 years I taught English to recent immigrants encouraging them to become part of our country but continue to honor their heritage. They shared memories of their homeland with me along with recipes of their favorite foods that gave them comfort in their new homeland.
    Thanks again Diane!

    1. Thank you for sharing Carolyn. I didn’t know that. I’m happy to hear they shared their memories of food with you and it gave them comfort.

  4. How wonderful to have these fascinating stories about your family . I would ask my German relatives to talk about their experiences–and in true German fashion, they just didn’t share any memories of the past and left me wishing for more information. I had a great-aunt who baked wonderful cakes–so light an airy–and asking for her recipe and it was always in handfuls and pinches.

    1. Hi Marylou, you are so right. It was difficult for immigrants at the time to discuss their memories. So much has been lost. I’m glad to see projects like Story Corps which tries to capture them before they are lost.

      1. Watching all the TV stories about WWII battles and all those photos of young men and women who died. Will wars and violence never end!!! The stories some of the survivors’ told left them in tears after all these years –some stating they could not talk about it because it was still too painful to remember.

  5. That hand-written recipe has the same yellowing and food smears and a similar rounded penmanship as my own mother’s handwriting. Even though I’ve typed the recipes, I have kept these paper flutters of memory. When the original appears tucked between pages of cookbooks handed down, I feel my mother is cooking beside me in the kitchen.

  6. A very interesting family history. Have you traveled to Poland at all? The sacrifices of those who endured so many hardships and integrated to America for a better life are almost beyond belief.

  7. Hello Diane, thanks for bringing the awareness of Poland and the Polish people in such colorful descriptions. I happen to be from Poland (Lodz). I’d love to share with you the history in 1913 and the dishes in general.
    That was a lovely story!
    junia

  8. Diane,
    Great story and pictures! I wish that, as a young person, I would have more thoroughly questioned my grandparents about their German roots. Now, of course, they are all gone. Our family has, however, shared some of my mother’s hand-written recipes, including a potato salad recipe, to her children and grandchildren. Never too late to cherish our family history. Thanks for bringing me back to my roots. Vern

    1. Thank you Vern. You are too right and its never too late. I found two more, so we’re scanning and making a collection to pass on what we remember.

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