A Southern Writer's Poetic Potato Salad

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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Ari Weinzweig is co-founder of Zingerman's Community of Businesses, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also the author of Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating. More

After graduating from University of Michigan with a degree in Russian history, Ari Weinzweig went to work washing dishes in a local restaurant and soon discovered that he loved the food business. Along with his partner Paul Saginaw, Ari started Zingerman's Delicatessen in 1982 with a $20,000 bank loan, a staff of two, a small selection of great-tasting specialty foods, and a relatively short sandwich menu. Today, Zingerman's is a community of businesses that employs over 500 people and includes a bakery, creamery, sit-down restaurant, training company, coffee roaster, and mail order service. Ari is the author of the best-selling Zingerman's Guide to Good Eating and the forthcoming Zingerman's Guide to Better Bacon.

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