Anniversary Potato Salad

A number of years ago today—I’d have to go into witness protection if I gave the actual number—my mother and aunt arrived in New York City from Jamaica.  They were 11 and 9 years old and had been separated from their parents and brother for four years.  My grandparents left one island where the sun actually provided warmth for another one where the few rays of sun were deceptive.  My grandmother left first, going to Canada and then coming into the United States where she found work in the Garment District and set up a small approximation of the life they’d had in pre-independence Kingston.  My grandfather and uncle followed, and I imagine that the rationale for leaving my mother and aunt behind was that it was easier to start a life in a new place with only one child instead of three.  I have been told this story for as long as I can remember. 

Every year on this day, either my mother or aunt would call the other and wish each other happy anniversary.  Then they would reminisce about how it was so cold, a sensation they couldn’t possibly have ever imagined, and how a few days later it snowed, just little flakes, but enough to make them stop whatever they were doing to watch this magic falling from the sky.  They’d talk about how the American accents sounded so odd to their ears—so flat—but how they were the ones who got teased for their lilting British voices.  The phone call always ended with memories of their first Thanksgiving, just a week after they arrived, with friends who lived in the same building.  First they were served Velveeta and Ritz crackers (imagine never having had American cheese and your first introduction being Velveeta!) and then the turkey and stuffing and ham and the thing my mother remembers most, potato salad with mayonnaise.  As she tells it, the white potatoes (which they’d also never had) were completely overwhelmed by heavy mayonnaise and it was cold and unfamiliar and just so not good.  The texture and the temperature and the very idea of mayonnaise were more than she could handle, and to this day she will make a face when she thinks of it.  Again, I’ve been told these stories for as long as I can remember. 

This is the first year that my aunt will not be here so that my mother can wish her a happy anniversary.  It is the second that my uncle is not here to chime in with what little he may have remembered about his two older sisters on this day.  It has been more than a decade since my grandparents told their version of the story.  Even though they were separated for years, the five of them stayed a family and were finally brought together many years ago today and remained together from that moment on.  There was so much between then and now, more than I’ll ever know, about struggles and fear and being strangers in a strange place where everything was new and sometimes not so shiny.  But I know that they were happy to be together, that they were happy to be here in this country where they made the best of every day, that they loved to dance and laugh and taste new foods (even things like mayonnaise), and that their story—which has become mine—is one of the best stories I’ve ever been told…

 Mustard Potato Salad With Capers (Happy Anniversary, Mom!)

Adapted from Gourmet, August 1998 (via

  • 1 pound small red potatoes (about 1 1/2 inches each)
  • 2 teaspoon red wine vinegar, or to taste
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, or to taste
  • 1/4 cup capers
  • 1 tablespoon dried dill
  • salt and pepper to taste

Steam potatoes (whole and with skin on) in double boiler, about 15 minutes.  When just cool enough to handle, quarter. Transfer hot potatoes to a bowl and immediately toss with vinegar. Add remaining ingredients and salt and pepper to taste and gently toss until combined well.  Serve potato salad warm or at room temperature.


4 Responses to Anniversary Potato Salad

  1. Ellen says:

    This is a beautiful tribute to a family, a memory, and the food that binds us together (or makes us grimace!). Only Heather could turn a story about bland, poor food into a beautiful essay complete with a delicious, vastly improved recipe, to teach all of us how to turn the less savory tastes of the past into something better in our future.

  2. Mom says:

    Hello Heather:

    Without you our Anniversary may have gone by unnoticed. Thank you so much for remembering your Aunt’s and my anniversary.

    I was lucky enough to taste your Anniversay Potato Salad and believe me it far surpassed my first taste of potatoes ladled with mayonnaise.

    There was no mayonnaise in sight in your recipe and it was absolutely delicious. I wish we had had some on our first Thanksgiving, but the wait was worth it.

    Love and Hugs,

  3. Denise says:

    lovely and poignant, thanks for sharing it with your readers

  4. Pingback: Curried Pumpkin Soup « Pestle Mortar

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