The Saga of the Pandemic Potato Salad – Comfort Food Through the Generations
What 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.
Who 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.
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.
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.
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/
Diane 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.