Anyways, it's based on just-cooked, cut-up potatoes (the recipe calls for a quart). I'm from the school that likes them more well-cooked than not. Add a lot of chopped hard-cooked egg (three, Ms. Welty says). As always, good eggs are worth finding because they actually add flavor here, not just texture and color. Add a whole green pepper, chopped fine—green peppers are like a forgotten vegetable it seems like these days, but don't skip it, since it cuts the richness of the dish—and a couple of roasted red peppers chopped fine, and mix everything with a bunch of mayonnaise and mustard, plus the standard salt and pepper to taste. I used the Silver Springs hot mustard at the Deli (and also the Raye's from Maine hot yellow mustard that I like a lot, although it's not on the Deli shelves right now). Then you cook a bunch of bacon (six strips, she says) until it's crisp and chop it and sprinkle it on top. I like a bigger smoky bacon for this dish—Broadbent's, Benton's ... Burgers' smoked pork jowl would be good. Any bacon of course would be just fine. I also used the bacon fat left in the pan to fry catfish (after rolling it in Anson Mills' really amazingly good cornmeal).
But before I get too totally easy with this, the truth is that in Ms. Welty's world the mayonnaise she'd have used certainly wasn't store-bought. Hellman's and Duke's were modern convenience foods back then. As she wrote in the forward to the Jackson Cookbook, published in 1971, "Mayonnaise had a mystique."Between that and the "wickedly hot" thing, she certainly had my attention. "Little girls," she went on, "were initiated into it by being allowed to stand at the kitchen table and help make it, for making mayonnaise takes three hands. While the main two hands keep up the uninterrupted beat in the bowl, the smaller hand is allowed to slowly add the olive oil, drop-by-counted-drop. The solemn fact was that sometimes mayonnaise didn't make. Only the sudden dash of the red pepper onto the brimming, smooth-as-cream bowlful told you it was finished and a triumph." And to put it fully in context, she concluded, "Of course you couldn't buy mayonnaise, and if you could, you wouldn't. For the generation bringing my generation up, everything made in the kitchen started from scratch, too."
Damn, the woman made potato salad seem to me like some sort of powerful aphrodisiac, not just something they sell in the deli department at the grocery store. There is, of course, an awful lot to be said for making this dish with homemade mayonnaise if you're willing to make time for it. There's a recipe for it in Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and I'm sure about 10,000 more will come up on Google. Interesting to note, I say, that Ms. Welty wrote about using olive oil, an ingredient I'd not have associated with home cooking in Jackson, Mississippi a century or so ago. Shows you what I know.
This homemade mayonnaise issue is not something to take lightly. Marcie Ferris, Bill's wife and, as an Arkansas native, probably a veritable Yankee by Mississippi standards, told me that "Bill's mom told me that a true southern woman ALWAYS has HOMEMADE mayonnaise and homemade sweet pickles in the refrigerator (and a tin of beaten biscuits in the pantry ... just in case guests arrive—to serve with stiff drinks of bourbon, and a slice of country ham or pimento cheese!"
So there you go ... It's just potato salad, but clearly it's so much more. As always, for me, the story behind the food is essential, and I'm only a bit of a ways into this whole thing. I still have to go to Vicksburg. Hoping Le Anne or Bill or others will meet me there to show me round the way Majid Mahjoub toured me through Tunisia two years ago. In the meantime, pick up some catfish to fry. Find a kid in your family and initiate him or her into mayonnaise making. Make some potato salad with local eggs, good potatoes, and a great bacon. Make it wickedly, seriously, hot, I hope. And get a copy of Ms. Welty's work and do some reading while the potatoes are cooking.
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