Some folks at Irish Hills’ Sand Lake don’t take kindly to having their potato salad usurped by another at a family reunion. Ellen Dawson found out the hard way, and recounted her story to me over a bowl of (you guessed it) potato salad at her family’s last Fourth of July picnic. While slathering on sunblock and slapping mosquitoes, I shook my head, lips pressed in commiseration, as she recounted the events leading up to her regrettable gaffe — the aftermath not as brutal as the Corleone family saga, but recounted with just as much passion by Ellen and her generation to follow.
The time was back in the mid-80s, and Ellen, her husband, Patrick, and their two young children were establishing traditions, one of which was to become their annual Fourth of July pilgrimage to Pat’s family cottage in Onsted. The property, located on glistening Sand Lake, had originally been the North Shore Hotel, but in the early 20th century, a fire burnt the hotel, leaving only the remains of the kitchen.
The Dawson family acquired the property in the 1930s, and rooms were affixed to the original kitchen to fashion the charming cottage that resides there today. As common in many family gatherings, a holiday menu was devised and assignments passed out. It was assumed that Ellen’s mother-in-law, Bettie (with an i e), would make her traditional potato salad that was always a fixture on the table, complete with the usual suspects: potatoes, eggs, onions, celery and a mayonnaise dressing. “A very heavy mayonnaise dressing.” Ellen’s eyes bored into mine and her brows raised as if to underline this last statement, wordlessly telling me she’d like to elaborate, but didn’t dare.
But Ellen had recently observed Aunt Betty (the wife of Bettie’s brother) making a very different recipe for potato salad, one composed with a light vinaigrette instead of mayonnaise. “I watched her make this with a precision of an engineer, and the taste of a culinary artist.”
“Two days before the fourth,” Ellen explained, “as the menu and assignments were being discussed, I exclaimed—quite innocently: ‘Aunt Betty should make the Potato Salad’! A gasp, followed by a hush, filled the room. As I looked around, family were stepping back, disassociating from me, looking out the windows, down at the floor, anywhere but in my direction. The only two staring at me were Aunt Betty and Bettie.”
Lowering her voice to a whisper, she continued. “Bettie (with an i e), glared at me and without a word, walked out of the cottage. Betty (with a y) said: “Why did you say that, you shouldn’t have said that!’ The other family members just shook their heads.” “I later came to understand that Aunt Betty would do anything to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. And my mother-in-law, Bettie, would do anything to make her family happy, in point, making her traditional potato salad. She assumed I wasn’t happy with her recipe, therefore my daughter-in-law status was in question.”
Years passed, time did its thing, and Bettie, Betty and Ellen never spoke about this unsavory event. “But I can’t say that for the rest of the family,” Ellen says, “who are quick to recount the story for all to hear.” As for Ellen’s potato salad, of which I was devouring my second helping? She’s established a new tradition, inspired by an Ina Garten recipe for French Potato Salad.
In the following, I changed the proportions to serve a larger crowd, decreased the vinaigrette and increased the wine and stock used; I also substituted shallot for green onion. Ellen, by the way, takes no issue with these changes.