Posted on January 3rd, 2013
Last spring, a friend and I went to see Damaged, an Off-Off-Broadway play by a rising playwright and director Simone Marie Martelle. The production that we watched was her thesis play, wherein she perfected the Eugene O’Neill-quality dynamic between members of a well-meaning but ultimately self-absorbed family who are so shrouded in personal drama that they fail to see their collective lives screeching toward a cataclysm. In the final scene, after the neglected and molested daughter takes her own life, the culprits stand around the darkening living room and the patriarch – masterfully portrayed by Kevin Bohl, one of New York theater’s best-kept secrets – delivers a monologue about potato salad. The character’s mother used to make him classic, cheap potato salad when he was a boy, and despite spending a lot of money on expensive hors d’oeuvres, all he really craved was that salad. The monologue was moving for many reasons, but when we emerged from the dark, musty theater space, I suddenly found myself moved to seek out potato salad.
Classic potato salad is boring and often bland; the patriarch in the play admitted as much, and I recalled this myself as I forced down forkfuls of it at an East Village diner while watching my friend put away grilled cheese on rye. The star ingredient is potato, and a lot of it. Hard-boiled eggs and finely chopped celery do little to introduce variety to this starchfest.
The same can be said of pasta salad, as well as the two “salads” I was offered years ago at the Christmas dinner of an ex-girlfriend’s Polish family. The venison, freshly killed by her brother and father on a hunting trip, was divine, but the separate existence of “cucumber salad” (sliced cucumbers, sour cream, salt) and “radish salad” (sliced radishes, sour cream, salt) baffled me: why not combine the two vegetables, toss some tomato and scallion in there, and have a singular, glorious Eastern European dish? I pictured Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee, pulling a large hunting knife from his belt, drawling, “You call that a salad?”
In almost any salad, when only one ingredient is allowed to shine, everyone suffers. Eastern Europeans usually know this well, and are not shy about piling on the meaty components. By “meaty,” I am literally talking about meat: when my mother makes potato salad, she goes lighter on potatoes and adds diced grilled chicken breast. Then, she tosses in some dill, one of my absolute favorite things in the world. This chicken potato salad went to 11 when, one glorious day, she added a generous helping of bacon. The ingredients fought it out, but it was the guests who won.