It’s too hot to be cooking out. Unless I get the hankering for a 6 a.m. barbecue, I’m getting nowhere near that charcoal. I’m not going to monkey with the smoker or even lounge around in the hammock until after Labor Day.
Not to complain. I completely understand this city is supposed to be hot as we transition from July to August. It’s just that spending the greater part of my life on or near the Gulf Coast has made me realize that as I get older, I cannot handle the heat the way I used to. I wore a jacket to the Nappies and took an Uber from an early dinner at Royal Scam to the Saenger Theatre. Later that evening when the sun went down I took another Uber to the OK Bicycle Shop. This was not out of laziness — it was the intense heat that got me.
So my food game has moved temporarily indoors. I spent the weekend boiling shrimp on the stove with the A/C down around 69 F while drinking tepid sparkling water and cold rosé to stay hydrated. But something had been nagging at me all month. July 3 would have been the 85th birthday of my grandmother, Jane Herrington MacDonald Carey, and I was craving her food.
She was a stellar cook the way most grandmothers can be. In the Indian Springs area of Laurel, Mississippi (have you seen the movie “Free State of Jones”?), Mammaw Mac as we called her was busy as a bee all weekend long in her open kitchen, performing the whole show as a solo artist or supplementing my grandfather’s barbecue.
I gave our readers the recipe for her Toothpick Pie some years ago, lifted from a handwritten note she snail-mailed me. That’s my favorite dessert to this day and you can still get an identical taste of this classic, known as Dream Pie, at Cheryl’s Café in Spanish Fort. But it was her potato salad and homemade bread that stood out.
These two things conjure up a lot of memories and do a real number on all of my senses. I can see that potato salad now. I can smell that bread. One hot, the other cold, one sweet and one savory, it’s the tension and release that belongs in every well-constructed meal, from fine dining to fast food. And there was nothing fast about these two things, so I reckon they had to fall into the fine dining category.
I was haunted all month by the thought of it. In this heat that cold potato salad would do me good, with a couple slices of her warm bread as an accompanying tomato sandwich slathered in real mayonnaise and sprinkled with black pepper. Do you ever think back to when you were younger and realize there was a time when you had it made? This is one of those flashbacks.
I’ve archived many a recipe from my mom and dad’s separate sides of the family but I never got these written down. I could get close to recreating them but I wouldn’t know the secrets. So I called Cuckoo.
Cuckoo is my Aunt Lynn Slaughter, my father’s only sister and reigning Queen Bee to the MacDonald descendants in the Southern part of the United States. It’s her territory now, though she spends her time in Dallas near her grandchild these days. She’s my favorite aunt and a colorful talker, with a melodic grace to her speech though often expeditious. If she could type as fast as she can talk her fingers would bleed. It’s like a lyrical guitar solo. I love it.
Here is her message: “Hi, love. I know her bread came from a starter that she used to ‘feed’ and unfortunately I don’t have a clue about that. I know she got the starter from someone at Laurel Federal [Savings and Loan where she worked] a long time ago. Her potato salad — that, I know. Let me type it out for you and I’ll send it, but I don’t have (or use) any measurements! Will that work?”
It works for me.
• 5 lb. bag of red potatoes (not the smaller new potatoes)
• 4 oz. jar of pimientos
• 6-8 boiled eggs, chopped
• Chopped dill pickles to taste (about 3/4 cup)
• 1 cup mayonnaise
• 1/2 cup yellow mustard
• 1/2 teaspoon onion salt
• Black pepper to taste
I have been a part of this process but I was too young to remember the details. It’s coming back to me with Cuckoo’s instructions. Boil the potatoes skin-on. I remember she’d boil the eggs in the same pot as the potatoes. Once the potatoes are tender, drain them on a cookie sheet lined with paper towels. It’s important that they cool completely so they won’t be wet or hot and therefore break when they mix with the rest of the ingredients.
Once cooled, peel them and meticulously cut them into 1/2 inch cubes. She was the master of this. I’d need some sort of jig or special cutting tool. It’s an exercise in patience.
Empty the jar of pimientos onto a plate. Using a fork, smash, mash and smash some more. That way you get the great pimiento flavor without the chunkiness and bite of the pimiento itself. This works well for stellar pimiento cheese.
Mix the mustard and mayonnaise together in a small bowl and fold into the potatoes. Add the rest of the ingredients, gently incorporating the flavors without breaking those potato chunks. Chill for hours and don’t tell my sister you have any.
Of course, these measurements are approximate. Just don’t make it too soupy.
It’s a shame I don’t have her bread recipe but the boys and I are flexing our baking muscles in the MacDonald Kitchen Laboratory. Expect our recipe for the new generation of MacDonald bread in an upcoming issue. Until then, get all of your grandmother’s recipes filed away. You’re going to need them someday.