Potato salad is not, strictly speaking, an American concept, but the mayonnaise-based version that most of us know and love is in fact American - or at least its origins are murky enough that we might as well claim it. And claim it we do -- in some towns it's illegal to hold a summer picnic and not serve potato salad. Okay, that last part might be wishful thinking.
The potato, originally from Peru, was introduced to Europe by the conquistadors and, like the peanut, has since insinuated itself into almost every country's national cuisine. Here in the United States, deli counters generally divide the world of potato salad into two halves: German (made with vinegar and mustard, served either warm or cold) and American (made with mayonnaise, served cold). I like both versions, but to me the German version is best as a change of pace, by which I mean as a second potato salad served alongside the American version.
Almost every family has their own beloved potato salad recipe. My father's version, which he faithfully makes every Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labor Day, contains celery, pickles, onions, and black olives. Yes, olives. It sounds crazy, but it works. As I won't be making the cross country trek to see my parents this summer, I thought I'd get a jump on picnic season with this here food fight. Inspired by the comments from the vanilla malt episode, the contenders are the Afton Oaks institution Nielsen's Deli and the Montrose stalwart Baba Yega.
To the judging!
Nielsen's Deli ($5.25 for a 8 fl. oz. plastic tub, 13 oz. by weight) Nielsen's potato salad has irregular chunks of potatoes and eggs mixed with onions, celery, homemade mayonnaise, salt, and white vinegar ("and that's it," according to the woman behind the counter). It's creamy, rich and addictive; a single bite cues up a thousand memories of summers gone by. As with their deviled eggs, the mayonnaise is the straw that stirs the drink. A small caution: the salad contains so much egg it's halfway to an egg salad, so if you don't like egg salad, these aren't the droids you're looking for. The price point is steep, verging on the ridiculous for a takeout deli, but it does drop a bit the more you buy.
Baba Yega ($1.95 for a healthy scoop, 7¾ oz. by weight) Baba Yega's potato salad also has a creamy mouthfeel, but for a completely different reason. The potatoes are almost mashed (I would guess that they use a ricer), then combined with mayonnaise, pickles, celery, and a healthy amount of dill. While it's not a canonical American-style potato salad, it's not too far off and the dill is a great addition, matching up especially well (if unsurprisingly) with the pickle. It's a very good salad, and probably much healthier than most other versions.
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The Winner: Both were excellent. I would probably bring the Nielsen's salad to a picnic, and order Baba Yega's for myself. If I had to eat an entire serving of Nielsen's potato salad I might not have any room for a burger, and dessert would be completely off the table.
Next time (or maybe time after next): pineapple upside-down cake. Any favorites out there?