05 November 2012

On Potato Salad

One of my Hutch-buddies wrote this post on life, death, and funeral food: Feasting in Life | The Quirky Redhead. This reminded me of an essay I wrote a few years ago and have been meaning for some time to post here. So, here it (finally) is.

I have been suspicious of potato salad for as long as I can remember.

Nonetheless, I love it: The soft, satisfying chunks of tuber, the gentle bite of pickle juice, the sweet, smooth, tangy mayo, the occasional crunch of onion. Its texture is every bit as wonderful as its taste. It's pleasing to the eyes, too, garnished with careful slices of hard-boiled egg, perfect parsley sprigs, and vivid dashes of paprika.

I remember sitting in the kitchen one sweltering Fourth of July morning, watching my mother drain a pot of steaming, brown-jacketed potatoes ("If you skin them before you boil them, the texture isn't as good," she explained). I remember my small fingers laboring to peel an egg, exasperated by the tiny bits of shell that never seemed to trouble my mother. ("It sometimes helps if you peel it under running water.") I remember cutting the eggs very carefully ("Never toward your hand!"), forming perfect circles of rich, crumbly yellow inside perfect circles of smooth, solid white. I remember teasing the boiled skin off the soft potatoes, using my clean fingernails ("Always wash your hands!") to pinch and pull, trying to remove every last bit of brown.

And, after the mysterious alchemy of mayonnaise and onions, of parsley and pickle juice and paprika, after the mixing and seasoning and stirring and garnishing, comes the glorious eating. 

If anything is more delightful to the palate than potato salad, it must be potato salad that you yourself have had a hand in preparing. It goes into your mouth and, as you chew, attains a miraculous homogeny, a wondrous e pluribus unum of flavor and texture.

So you see how enormously it pains me to suspect potato salad of anything besides being the perfect side dish for any informal dining occasion. Nonetheless, the circumstantial evidence is simply too great to ignore.


Exhibit A: Grandma's potato salad in a green Tupperware bowl sitting on a battered folding table in the cool, dark basement fellowship hall of the Belleville United Methodist Church, Belleville, KS, October 1986.

Great Aunt Marjorie, Grandma’s sister, has just died, and we are celebrating. 

That, at least, is how it seems to my five-year-old mind. I cannot fathom why this death, this ceasing-to-be of a human being, would be cause for rejoicing. But there it is, the delightful potato salad, just like it was at my birthday a week earlier, when Aunt Marjorie wasn't dead in a box upstairs.

Perhaps Aunt Marjorie is hiding in the basement closet that holds the musty old choir robes. Any moment now, she will burst gloriously forth into the fellowship hall, and we'll all know it was just a trick, a magnificent joke that fooled everyone but me. We will see that the life really hasn't ebbed from her wizened old body that smells of peppermint and lavender soap, and we will offer her some of Grandma's delectable potato salad.

I begin to grow uneasy as the festivities die down without event. The joke has become less funny; when will Aunt Marjorie return from the closet to the land of the living? She must be awfully hungry in there. I wonder if I should take her a plate of food.

"Micah, find your jacket. It's time to go." My mother's voice doesn't sound quite normal. She must be tired.

"Mom," I want to ask, "when will Aunt Marjorie stop hiding?" And I almost do ask, but then I am afraid of the answer.

The last bite of potato salad sticks in my throat as I search the basement for my jacket. I sneak a peek into the robe closet. Nothing is there but ancient, faded cloth saturated with smells of armpits and mildew. I decide not to ask for potato salad on my next birthday.


Exhibit B: An educational electronic display at the Exploration Place museum, Wichita, KS, June 1996.

The museum display features an electronic screen with a large, colorful drawing of a picnic, complete with a number of cartoonish people. In front of the screen is a bank of buttons, including a big red one labeled "Start." The sign above the screen tells me that I am a detective who must solve the case of the mysterious illness that afflicts the people in the picture.

I am intrigued. I have just finished the complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In my mind's eye, I am Sherlock Holmes, wearing an overcoat and deerstalker and smoking a pipeful of rough-cut tobacco (which I took from my Persian slipper before leaving Baker Street this morning). I am ready to come to the aid of the poor, ignorant denizens of the drawing.

I follow the instructions and press the red button. 

A disembodied voice assesses the situation for me: "The Smith family is in trouble! Their day of picnicking and fun in the great outdoors has been ruined by upset stomachs. Some of them feel nauseated and miserable. It's up to you to find out why they're sick. For information that might help, press a button that corresponds to a family member's name. Good luck, detective!"

I have not emerged from my education with Sir Arthur without learning a thing or two about observation. 

Before I go any farther, I take careful stock of the scene. Several happy digital children play Frisbee in a field of pixelated grass. Nothing seems to be wrong with them. 

Nearby, there is a table with some adults sitting at it. Two of them look greenish and uncomfortable. Spread across the table are plates, napkins, and a variety of food: Hot dogs, buns, condiments, chips, vegetables, cole slaw, potato salad, cookies, and canned soft drinks. 

Off to the other side of the picture, an adult and several children lie in the sun on blankets, watching the clouds. One of the children looks as if she will be violently ill in very short order.

My stomach sinks as I begin to suspect the reason for the mysterious illness. The first button I press, next to the name “Betty,” confirms my suspicions. 

A young girl’s voice comes over the speaker: “We’ve been here all afternoon. After having a picnic lunch, Tom, Mike, and Amy went over to toss he Frisbee around. Meanwhile, Mom, Dad, Cindy, and Uncle Bill went for a walk together, and Toby and I decided to watch the clouds with Aunt Cathy. When Mom, Dad, and Cindy got back from the walk, they were hungry, so they had seconds. Uncle Bill stopped to pick wildflowers, but he got back later and joined Mom and Dad at the table while Cindy came over to watch the clouds with us."

Even Dr. Watson couldn't get this case wrong. It's obviously food poisoning. And I have a very good guess about which food is responsible.

Cindy's account leaves little doubt in my mind: " I was sooooo hungry! I don't eat meat, but I really liked the cole slaw, veggies, and potato salad. Ugh! Now I’m going to be sick!"

That narrows it down to three. Even though I don't need any more clues -- sometimes a detective just knows -- I am sure Holmes wouldn't stop until he had eliminated all other possibilities, so I interrogate the other witnesses anyway.

Dad Smith, one of the sufferers, informs me that he "can't stand cabbage," and the green-gilled Mom Smith tells me, "Even though my diet doesn't normally allow it, I splurged a little bit and took some potato salad to go with my hot dog." 

To clinch the matter, Uncle Bill (who is feeling perfectly well) says he wanted potato salad when he got back, but it had all been eaten.

As I press a button to confirm that potato salad is the culprit, something within me protests -- how could such a delightful dish cause so much discomfort? How could something so delicious harbor such danger? Nonetheless, once one has eliminated all other possibilities, whatever remains, no matter how unlikely, must be the answer.

And it is. The display goes on to inform me that potato salad is the picnic food most prone to feed bacteria and is consequently the most common source of food poisoning at picnics. The screen says that potato salad, if not kept under 40 degrees Fahrenheit, can be contaminated with dangerous Latin words like Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus, and Clostridium perfringens. The very sound of them makes me queasy, but I set my jaw and act as if it's not a big deal. Just another case solved.

As I walk away from the exhibit, I wistfully puff my imaginary pipe and wish the cole slaw had been the guilty party.


Exhibit C: A stack of green plastic serving bowls beside the dishwashing sink in the back of the kitchen at Kansas Bible Camp in Hutchinson, KS, July 2001.

I have been here at camp all summer. Most of that time, I have been the dishwashing crew chief. I coordinate the cleaning of 150 plates, glasses, forks and spoons per meal, along with 28 pitchers, 14 serving utensils, two water coolers, a dozen pots and pans, sundry cooking implements, and occasionally the monstrous, greasy old grill wedged into the corner between the mop sink and the convection ovens. I also ensure that the kitchen and dining room get mopped and that the groceries get put away where they belong.

This afternoon, I have made the mistake of letting my dish crew go early so they can see the Fourth of July parade in town with the families (including my own) that are camping here this week. I assumed that I would have very few dishes to do, since we ate lunch on paper plates out on the lawn in front of the rambling old camp building. The meal was quite simple: Hamburgers, potato salad, and watermelon, with cookies for dessert. Normally, the only dishes for such a meal are the forks, serving dishes, and utensils, so I reasoned that I would be able to handle the dishes without my crew’s help. Unfortunately, I forgot about the grill.

The grill is my perennial enemy. Each time it is used, I must attack it with my degreaser and scratchy pads to rid it of its greasy, baked-on residue. The process, helpfully outlined on a filthy 3” X 5” card Scotch-taped to the wall behind the grill, is both simple and demanding:

  1. Pour water on grill to cool it off
  2. Using rubber gloves, spread grill with diluted de-greaser
  3. Scrub with grill block; rinse degreaser off
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 as needed
  5. Wash grill with soap and water; dry with paper towels
  6. Apply a coat of Crisco to season grill

The grill is hot this afternoon. As I pour water on it, a burst of steam hisses upward, almost stifling me. 

I sigh, wipe my forehead with a paper towel, and start scrubbing the grill down. I don't bother with the gloves or with diluting the chemicals. The stronger they remain, the sooner I'll be done.

As I finish the grill, the smell of leftover bits of potato salad mingles with the odor of the degreaser to create a new and horrible olfactory sensation. It makes me envision deadly little Latin words swirling around the room, all clad in tiny rubber gloves. 

Moving on to the dish sink, I decide to clean the serving bowls before doing the silverware.

I don’t especially like camp potato salad. It’s made for 150 people, so it isn’t prepared nearly as lovingly or carefully as my mother always made it. Besides, the cooks here use mustard instead of pickle juice, and that gives it too much kick. I’ve never enjoyed potato salad that bites me back. Nonetheless, it’s better than no potato salad, so I had a generous helping at lunch.

As I start spraying the residue off the bowls before washing them, I begin to wish I hadn’t eaten quite so much potato salad. The heat of the day is lukewarm in comparison with the scalding water that shoots from the sprayer. It doesn’t have a temperature control, since no cold-water pipe goes to that part of the kitchen. 

I suppose whoever plumbed the building decided he didn’t need to run two pipes to the sprayer when the dish crew would just want hot water all the time anyway. He obviously did not foresee how uncomfortable it would be to stand in the kitchen on a July day and feel the steam rising from the sprayer. And I’m certain he didn’t know that the hot water from the sprayer could lift the scent of potato salad from bowls and disperse it into the miserably warm kitchen. 

At times, I am so overcome with the all-permeating odor and heat that I almost gag.

Finally, after hours of battling the hamburger grease on the grill and the potato salad residue on the bowls, my last dish is done, and kitchen’s unpleasant smells have all but dissipated. 

I drain the sinks and glance at the clock above the kitchen doorway: 3:15. Just enough time to jump in the camp’s cool, clear swimming pool before the staff prayer meeting at 4:00. I smile and leave the sweltering kitchen to change into swim trunks. I wonder if the families have gotten back from town yet. I haven’t seen my brothers very much today, and they went to the parade earlier. I hope they’re at the pool – they always make my day better.

As I walk into the poolyard, the first person I see is Sam, my 13-year-old brother. He looks as if he’s fighting back tears.

“What’s the matter, buddy?” I am concerned. Sam is normally easygoing and good-natured. If he is distressed, something is severely wrong.

“Something bad happened to Tim.” 

I notice that his eyes are red.“How bad?” 

I think of all the times Tim has been hurt in his 15 years: he has always been the brother with bandaged arms or legs, the one who cracks his head open on playground basketball courts, the one who constantly tries to tackle guys twice his size when we play football in the park. He is wild and reckless, and I love him for it.

“Real bad.” The tears break through Sam’s defenses, and I pull him into a rough hug to help him recover.

Between pauses to regain his composure, Sam tells me the story. They were canoeing and decided to stop at a little sandbar about a mile upstream. The sand there is bleached white, so we’ve always called it Fiji Island (even though it’s neither an island nor especially Pacific in appearance). 

As Sam and the others were writing their names in the sand with sticks, they heard a splash and noticed Tim was missing. When he looked at the creek, Sam saw a bit of Tim’s swim trunks sticking up from the murky water – an air bubble, he quickly concluded.

Thinking that Tim was playing a joke on them, Sam waded across the creek to where Tim was and picked him up out of the water. Tim seemed dazed.“Are you OK, Tim?” Sam asked.

Tim mumbled something that Sam thought was a “Yes,” so he let him go. Tim dropped back into the creek with an unnatural-sounding splosh. That’s when they knew something was wrong.

Sam ran to the camp building to call 911, then ran back to Fiji Island to await the ambulance’s arrival. When it came, the paramedics determined that Hutchinson’s hospital would probably not be able to keep Tim alive, so they called in a chopper to take him to Wichita. Sam stood and watched it until it had gone, and then, half-dazed, walked alone back to the camp building.

As Sam finishes the story, Mom enters the poolyard. She seems peaceful, but her eyes are red.

Letting Sam go, I turn to her. “Mom, what’s wrong with him? Do they know? Will he be OK?” I can’t ask the questions quickly enough.

“Well,” Mom replies, “the paramedics think it’s his neck. He probably broke it when he dove into the creek. He can’t move anything below his collar bone.” She forced a smile. “I’m sure it’ll be all right; God is in control.”

I want to scream, to curse, to blaspheme. How could God allow this to happen? Where was God when my little brother’s vertebrae snapped, crackled, popped like a clichéd breakfast cereal commercial? What God would allow tiny Latin words to terrorize us in the very potato salad we eat? Is this the same God who allowed my dead Aunt Marjorie to go into that wooden box and never, ever come out again?

What are we to that kind of God but a speck, a tiny bit of grease caked onto the very corner of the grill? What are we to Him but flies gathered around a gob of rotting potato salad in a dumpster behind some deli? Does He care about me, that God who created this horrible, ugly little world?

I don’t explode; I withdraw. I nod my head wisely, I say, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” I act like my faith isn’t disintegrating. I am still a good little Christian. But something sharper, harsher than mustard begins to eat away at me.

Mom and Dad leave immediately for Wichita to sit anxiously in the waiting room while doctors try to cut, poke, and probe the life back into my little brother. 

Everyone else at camp goes to the chapel for a special prayer meeting. I can imagine what will be said: “Gracious Father, we know You have a purpose for this event.” Or maybe, “Lord, we know You’re just using this to show us Your grace in Tim’s life.” Or even, “Lord, we don’t know why you’re doing this, but we know that You are good.”

I know the people here will pray doctrinally correct prayers, I know that they have good, biblical reasons for telling God what they do, and I suppose I even agree with them intellectually, but if I went to the meeting, I’m afraid I’d shout, “Jesus Christ! What the hell were you thinking?!” 

That prayer is probably not so doctrinally correct, so instead of going, I sit on my bunk in the staff quarters and quietly sob like there’s no tomorrow. (I’m not sure there is.)


My family drives to Wichita to visit Tim the next day. We have a cooler full of leftovers from camp for lunch. I am not hungry.The hospital’s parking garage is labyrinthine. I’m glad my older brother Andrew is leading the way; I know I’d just get lost. He doesn’t, though. We find the room just fine. 

On the way, we see a bereaved Mennonite couple crying outside their son’s room. We learn later that he was crushed beneath the body of a half-tame horse he was saddle-breaking. Doctors are crowded around, telling the family how sorry they are. I pretend I do not see them.

My imagination could not have prepared me for what I see in Tim’s room. A metal halo is screwed into his head, he is flat on his back, and his face looks like it belongs on a bloated corpse. He looks nothing like the boy I saw at lunch the day before; I wonder if this is the right room.

Andrew leads the way to the bed, with Sam close behind. I stand back behind Mom and the rest of the kids and wait my turn to talk to my brother, to let him know how glad I am that he has cheated death (for now). 

While I wait, I overhear a thin, nervous doctor whispering to Mom that “the prognosis, quite frankly, is not very promising, although, of course, anything can happen.” Something in me hardens even more, and it is all I can do to avoid smashing his smug, benevolent M.D. face in.

Finally, it is my turn to talk to Tim. I notice that he has not been very talkative so far; crushing several vertebrae and undergoing a couple of life-saving operations probably has that effect on a guy.

“Hey, bro.” I’m not sure what to say to someone so close to death.

“Hey. Did I worry you?” His words are slurred. He tries a laugh that comes out more as a gurgle.

“Nah. We’re used to you getting hurt.” I smile and blink several times. Hard.

“Don’t cry, Micah – it’s merely a flesh wound.” He knows I have a soft spot for Monty Python.

I smile despite myself. “Seriously, you doing OK, Timmy?”

“No offense, Micah,” he begins, his voice thick and soft, “but it seems like you’re having more trouble with this whole thing than I am.”

How can he see right through me when his eyes are swollen almost shut? No use lying to him. “I am having a hard time, bro. It seems so…” I struggle for words. “Unfair, maybe?”

“Listen, Micah.” He suddenly seems a little sharper. “I’ve thought about this. I know I might die. I know there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve had a good life, and I’m thankful for everything I’ve been able to do. If this is the end, I’m fine with that. If I recover completely, I’m fine with that. I accept what God is doing in me, and I keep on going. If I tried to take control myself, I’d just be frustrated, right?” He pauses, breathes hard. “I’m not feeling so good… I’d better take a nap.”

“Yeah, buddy. Do that.”

“Thanks for visiting me.”

“No, thank you, Tim. You’ve helped me a lot. Feel better, OK?”

“I’m trying.” Another gurgle-laugh.

On the way back to camp, Andrew drives while Mom hands out leftovers. She goes through in reverse age order, asking us all what we want. I come almost last, right before Andrew. “Micah, what would you like?” She offers me sandwiches, chips, day-old lasagna.

“Just potato salad, please,” I reply. “I’m not all that hungry.”

I know it hasn’t been stored below 40 degrees, but I eat it anyway, and despite the mustard’s bite and the unpleasant memory of its steamy odor the day before, it is the most wonderful thing I have ever tasted.


The really tricky thing about potato salad is that it should not exist in a world filled with death, disease, and pain. 

The sweet, comforting smoothness of mayo has no place in the presence of heartrending anguish. Soft, substantial chunks of boiled potatoes do not belong in a realm where health can turn so suddenly to sickness, where happiness can dissolve in the blink of an eye. The intermingled flavors of spices and pickle juice and half a dozen other things should not have the ability to delight the taste buds of people whose existences could be eradicated with the next gust of wind, shaking of the ground, or sudden flood. A boy who has eaten so marvelous a side dish as potato salad should not have his strength sapped, his body crippled in a heartbeat.

That is why I am suspicious of the food. It is not merely a delicious blend of flavor or something to help fill out the menu at a picnic or church social. Rather, it is a constant reminder of mortality, of suffering, and of the destruction inherent in our lives. Potato salad promises things it cannot give: peace, pleasure, relaxation, an underlying sense of rightness. It belies the fact that the world around it is nowhere near as perfect as the salad itself is. 

And yet, I'm beginning to suspect that the promise isn't a false one after all.

Perhaps potato salad is more: a reminder of God’s perpetual grace. Or, if you prefer, a reminder of the possibility of goodness somewhere, somehow, through some means. That reminder can seem insignificant in a bleak and frequently hopeless world, but sometimes – if we’re lucky or blessed or have good enough karma, maybe – it is enough to help us through the darkness. It can pull us from despair and enable us to stand back up in the aftermath of reality’s brutal knockout punch. 

And, as we taste the sweetness, tanginess, smoothness, and wholesomeness of potato salad, somehow it may help us learn to accept the tragic miracle of our humanity.

1 comment:

Laurel said...

Thank you, Micah.