over easy

I Am Proud to Be a Potato Salad Person

A barbecue. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

Over Easy is a weekly food column by a 20-something woman who can barely cook an egg and just wants to learn how to throw together an elegant three-course meal for her friends.

There is a hierarchy to barbecue potlucks. At the top, of course, is the Grill Master, who carries on their sooty, sweaty shoulders the potential success or failure of the day. Usually, this person is the host, though sometimes it’s an overconfident guest who watches a lot of BBQ Pitmasters and loves attention. At the bottom is the person who forgets to make anything, and shows up late because they had to stop at a grocery store on their way over to buy stale sugar cookies and beer. Usually, this person also loves attention. Usually, this person is me.

But when my friend Madison invited me to a barbecue one weekend recently — climate change having extended barbecue season in New York by several weeks — I promised myself that this time would be different. This time, I would make a valuable contribution to the team. I would make a potato salad.

I knew this was ambitious. Potato salad is not the star of the show (though it can be), but it is a beloved staple people depend on to fill themselves up in case every other dish falls apart. In a vote of confidence, Madison asked if I had ever made a potato salad before — and I had to confess that I had not. Still, she allowed me to take on this critical role, probably because no one else was offering.

I decided to make this recipe for potato salad with Old Bay and potato chips from Andy Baraghani at Bon Appétit because potato chips ON potatoes sounded exciting and borderline indecent, like when a dog dances on its hind legs, and you love it but also you can’t help but wonder if it’s wrong. What’s more, Baraghani’s recipe doesn’t include mayonnaise, which I thought was best to avoid for a hot, outdoor barbecue. Plus, I suspected the Old Bay and potato chips could cover up any sins I might accidentally commit against the potatoes.

My original plan was to make the potato salad the night before. But one thing (me being tired) led to another (the wine store around the corner from me), and when I woke up on Saturday morning, just a few hours before the barbecue, I had a throbbing headache, a mostly empty bottle of Pinot Grigio, and a phone full of pictures of the guy who plays Reggie on Riverdale (?) but no potato salad. For a moment, I considered faking a digestive ailment, or my own murder, so I could spend the day sleeping in the cool darkness of my room. But my sense of duty and Catholic guilt prevailed. I wiped the thick smears of mascara off from underneath my eyes, and went shopping.

On my excursion, I learned two things: (1) That “small waxy potatoes” like Barghani’s recipe calls for are, according to this Huffington Post story that I read in the middle of the first grocery store I visited, “often characterized by a creamy, firm, and moist flesh that holds its shape well after cooking” or, if that doesn’t mean anything to you, just look for Red Bliss or New Potatoes varieties. And (2) There is no Old Bay seasoning to be found in any of the grocery stores by my apartment.

By the time I checked the fourth store, I was feeling distraught. Old Bay is right there in the recipe name! I can’t leave it out! I’m still hungover and almost puked on a LaCroix display! Help! Because I don’t really know what Old Bay is, I thought maybe I could make my own, but the recipe I found for homemade Old Bay seasoning listed, conservatively, 8,000 spices, and unfortunately I did not have three weeks to set aside for gathering them all. One article suggested Cajun seasoning as a substitute, because even though it’s less complex, both are based primarily on cayenne pepper and paprika. Compelling. Even more compelling: looking up from my phone and seeing a small jar of Cajun seasoning right in front of my face.

Back at my apartment, the barbecue clock ticking down, I placed four pounds of new potatoes (for the potluck, I doubled the original recipe, which says it serves six) in a pot of cold water, and brought it to a boil at which point, as per Barghani’s instructions, I lowered the heat and set a timer so the potatoes could simmer for 18 minutes.

Onions. Photo: Madeleine Aggeler

While the potatoes simmered, I tearfully sliced up two red onions, which I cooked with half a cup of oil in a skillet for five minutes, over medium-high heat, until they were soft. I then poured them into a large bowl, and mixed in half a cup of apple-cider vinegar, two tablespoons of whole grain mustard, two teaspoons of Cajun seasoning, two teaspoons of black pepper, and a couple of pinches of Cayenne pepper. I tasted a spoonful, and felt like I had been slapped directly across the face. All of the flavors screamed for my attention at once — the subtle sweetness of the onions, the spice of the mustard, the zing of the vinegar. It was loud and overwhelming and a little rude. I absolutely loved it.

When the potatoes were done, I drained them, and then realized that even though they were small, I should have cut them into smaller, more bite-size pieces before cooking them. With a small knife, I cut each one in half, burning all of my fingertips in the process, and then, when the potatoes were dry, poured them into the bowl with the onion and spice mix, along with parsley, chives, and most of a bag of Kettle chips.

By now, I was late. I covered the bowl in foil, attempted to look presentable, and rushed to Brooklyn Bridge Park. I arrived just as Madison was finishing on the grill. She introduced me to her friends as Maddie, who writes a cooking column, and they said oooh, and I assured everyone that they would be disappointed. (This is a great thing to say when you’re meeting people for the first time, because your interactions will either improve or they won’t, in which case, hey, you warned them.)

But they weren’t disappointed. Despite the lack of Old Bay and my rushed, hungover, cooking, the potato salad was delicious. The potatoes were soft without being mushy, the dressing was still smoky and spicy and sweet and tangy. As the potato chips got soggy, I would go around and crunch fresh ones over people’s plates, like an off-brand Salt Bae. People had multiple servings, and we kept eating well past the point of feeling full, and then past the point of feeling nauseous.

This summer taught me that I am terrible at grilling. Unlike Madison, who was able to make delectable chicken that was both crispy and juicy, I don’t have the necessary temperament, patience, or basic ability to start a fire that grilling requires. But maybe I was just trying to be something I’m not. Maybe I was never meant to be a Grill Master. We all have our roles to play in life, as at barbecues. Some of us are the barbecue stars, who play fast and loose with fire and meat, and some of us are the supporting cast, maybe not as edgy, but just as essential. Some of us are Potato Salad People and that, in my opinion, is something to be very proud of.

My report card
Preparation: B
Taste: A
Managing expectations: A+

My Overall Performance: A-

I Am Proud to Be a Potato Salad Person