Ancestral Dish: The lost salads of summer

My dad knew his way around a kitchen, but he did not cook every day. He preferred to be known for a selection of specialties, a niche he could comfortably occupy while my mom did the day-in, day-out job of cooking for the nine of us.

The dishes for which Dad was famous included a hearty version of Irish stew, a snappy, spicy Manhattan clam chowder and liver and onions, for which I can’t supply a positive adjective, sorry. When summertime rolled around, he was famous for his potato and macaroni salads.

Dad never made just a little salad. He always filled at least one, preferably two, cafeteria-style stainless-steel trays, which my parents happened to have on hand, along with a commercial deli-style slicing machine. We were not in the deli business; we simply had this stuff. As a kid, I assumed everybody did.

When Dad cooked, he usually took over the kitchen for the day, regarding the arrival of kids wanting lunch as an act of aggression, or at least an unreasonable intrusion. If you hung around, you might find yourself peeling potatoes. (“KP”, he called it.) Dad’s salads had no fancy secret ingredients. He thought that putting relish in macaroni salad was an abomination and that chopped hard-boiled eggs were overkill.

Still, decades after my dad died, I will occasionally hear wistful comments about “those wonderful salads your father used to make.” And they were wonderful — reserved for special occasions like Fourth of July barbecues or First Communion parties. Over the years I have tried to replicate them, without success. The true secret was in the dressing, I have come to believe, and Dad made his dressing in completely unscientific fashion, eyeballing quantities and shaking everything up in an empty Hellmann’s mayonnaise jar. He’d have driven a recipe editor crazy, and having been one myself, I ought to know.

Sometimes when you give up trying on a dish, you find it anyway, or at least, you find its essence. Recently I hosted a First Communion buffet lunch at my house for 40 people. In between bouts of questioning my sanity, I found a large-scale recipe for pasta salad. It is extremely different from Dad’s, with corkscrew noodles and steamed broccoli florets and a bunch of other things he’d disdain. And yet — something about it reminded me of his macaroni salad. Maybe it was the dressing.

See what you think on the jump.

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