I've only lived in the South for ten years; before that I lived in Oklahoma. Even though Oklahoma technically isn't the South, my grandmother, Willie Ruth Abbott (or Mee-Mo, as my cousin Kitty dubbed her), was a true Southern cook, making fresh sausage gravy and biscuits every morning, pouring cornbread batter into hot bacon grease in her cast-iron mold. What I learned about Southern food early on in life was all due to spending time in the kitchen with Mee-Mo, crimping the edges of her fried pies. When I was growing up, we'd travel every few years to family reunions held at Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Durant, Oklahoma--a densely green and hilly area in the southeastern corner of the state. Long tables would be set up in the covered pavillion of the cemetery, loaded with every cook's most-requested dishes: fried chicken, dilly bread, peach cobbler, macaroni salad, angel biscuits, fried pies, baked beans, and several potato salads. Just writing this list makes my soul ache for those sweltering afternoons of paper plates weighted down with so much good food.
- 4 pounds red-skinned potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
- salt and ground black pepper
- 2 stalks celery, minced
- 1 bunch green onions, sliced (both green and white parts)
- 2 T. sweet pickle relish (optional)
- 3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped (optional)
- 3/4- to 1 cup mayonnaise
- 3 T. grainy mustard (I use Creole, but Dijon or deli or plain old yellow are fine)
- 2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 T. red wine vinegar
- 1 t. fresh thyme or 1 t. chopped fresh dill
- Bring about 4 quarts of well-salted water to a boil in a large pot. Add potatoes and bring back to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook for about 9 minutes, or until potatoes are tender but not mushy. Test one by poking a sharp knife point into some of the bigger pieces: if there is no resistance, they're done.
- Drain potatoes into a colander. Place them back in the pot, where the residual heat will help dry out some of the excess water. Let cool for about 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, make the dressing. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise and mustard. Slowly whisk in the olive oil, then the vinegar. Season well with salt and pepper and add the fresh thyme. Taste for seasoning: it should have a good amount of zing. If not, adjust it by adding little bits more of salt, pepper, vinegar, mustard, or whatever you think it needs.
- Add potatoes and all the other ingredients to dressing, stirring gently with a rubber spatula to avoid breaking all the potatoes. Taste for seasoning again and adjust. If it seems dry, go ahead and add more mayo or oil and mix it in--it's better to do it now than after chilling.
- Chill, covered, in refrigerator for at least an hour and up to a day.