Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews
An easy-to-make, historically-sound salad from Bill Ferris’ hometown
Writing about Bill Ferris has me remembering this dish, which originated in his hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vicksburg Potato Salad wedged its way into the already odd mosaic of my mind when I first read about it in The Food of a Younger Land, the compilation of the WPA-sponsored project on American cuisine, edited by Mark Kurlansky. The work, which dates to the 1930s, was originally called America Eats and included some of the country’s great writers—Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, and Eudora Welty to name just a few—sharing thoughts on regional American eating back in the dark days of the Depression.
Welty was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1909. She wrote nearly 20 books and won a wealth of prizes and awards, before passing away in 2001. While her name is now about as well-known as one gets in the world of American literature, when she wrote this for the WPA, Welty had no real recognition for her writing work yet. The potato salad first popped up in a pamphlet—originally distributed on mimeographed sheets—that Eudora Welty had written about Mississippi cooking. As she described, the salad was served with fried catfish at the Hotel Vicksburg, in the same town where Welty, and the Ferris family, lived. Back when I first saw her comments on the salad, I checked in with Bill Ferris to see if he knew more about it. He wrote back:
The Vicksburg Hotel no longer exists. … I remember going there as a child when my father got his haircut. They had a large barbershop on the street level with five or six chairs where men sat while they had their hair cut. … It was a magical place for a young child.
Making Vicksburg Potato Salad at home is super easy. As per “A Taste of Zingerman’s Food Philosophy,” the better the potatoes you use, the better the salad will taste. I made it with the terrific Tantré Farm potatoes that I picked up at Argus Farm Stop, but Yukon Golds from the supermarket work well too. Start by cubing just-cooked potatoes (Welty’s recipe calls for a quart). Add a lot of chopped hard-cooked egg (three, she says). Add a whole green pepper, chopped fine—it cuts the richness of the dish. And a couple roasted red peppers, also chopped fine. Mix it all with a bunch of mayonnaise (which in Welty’s day would surely have been homemade), plus the standard salt and freshly ground pepper (we have a wide range of great ones) to taste, and a good bit of spicy mustard. Crumble a bunch of good bacon on top. For the bacon, I like a bigger smoky one for this dish—Broadbent’s or Benton’s would both be beautiful options. (Zingerman’s Guide to Better Bacon will give you a lot more insight into bacon histories and flavors.)
On the one hand, you might think, this is just potato salad, but clearly, knowing the story behind it, it’s so much more. As always, one story leads to another and then to another still—and before you know it, the world has come alive in wonderful ways. Make some potato salad with local eggs, good potatoes, and any one of the great bacons we’ve got on hand. Find a kid in your family and initiate them into mayonnaise making. And get a copy of Ms. Welty’s work and do some reading while the potatoes are cooking.