Thursday, December 22, 2011


When we’d moved to North Carolina, I knew we were in the South when the house we’d rented was sandwiched between Emeline on the left and “Miz” Lyons on the right.  Unlike the anonymity of our condo parking lot in New Jersey, here pulling into our shared driveway, Miz Lyons would always be sitting on her porch. She was old and sweet and well cared for by a trio of women — Ella, Exibelle, and Ida — who rotated in and out of her house round the clock.  When the kids would get out of the car, Miz Lyons (and caregiver) would beckon them to her porch and surprise them with plums, hard candy, or maybe pieces of chocolate pressed into their little hands. 

Emeline and Lawrence were the other end of the spectrum. Larry was a classics professor at Duke University, working on a book about the topography of ancient Rome, while Emeline was researching the Etruscans.  I loved being next door to them because the world they lived in was so erudite and far, far away from having two-and-a-half year-old boy-girl twins underfoot. Getting to know Miz Lyons and Emeline helped soften the pangs of being away from family and friends.

Getting used to being in the South (with a capital “S”) would mean getting used to these distinctly different southern names, southern sensibilities and more unsettling, the southern landscape and the fact that coffee shops and delis were not part of this terrain.

Delis were the source of pastrami, Reubens and potato salads — and the supreme potato salad was from Schreiber’s in Oradell, New Jersey  —  potatoes sliced wafer-thin, rich with cream, sweetened with sugar.  In our extended family if anyone was going all out for an event, they got the potato salad from Schreiber’s.  People would actually ask on the way to someone’s home, “Are they having Schreiber’s?” 

I’ve tried recreating it, getting close but not really there. Late one night, homesick for the taste (and now savvy about and epicurious and recipes from the universe that is the web), I Googled Schreiber’s potato salad and found someone who’d written a review with the heading “Potato Salad worth traveling 2500 miles for…”  and this guy said “It's the best I've ever had. I wish they would share the recipe, but every time I ask, they just smile and fill my order.”  Out there was another mouth yearning for the taste of Schreiber’s.

I never thought I’d enjoy another potato salad as much as Schreiber’s but my mother-in-law’s is pretty terrific.  Very much the opposite, it’s German-style with almost no mayonnaise, vinegar, salt, pepper, lots of oil, and (to my husband’s delight) chopped raw onions. She insists on making it days in advance so she can “turn” it in the frig two or three times a day to make certain the oil permeates all the potatoes.  Like Schreiber’s, Helen’s potatoes are sliced thin and once you taste it, it’s simply addictive. 

Potato salad in the South was made with pickled sweet relish or chopped sweet pickles, hard-boiled eggs, celery seed and yellow mustard.  It did not excite me.

Luckily, Emeline was a fabulous cook and often shared samples of her culinary arts. Once for a “simple luncheon” she served us the most delicious potato salad with egg — surprisingly different from anything I’d had before and definitely not Southern.  

“I call this Pompeian Salad because we were in Italy when Larry left me for a three-day conference and I was stuck in Pompeii with nothing but a few potatoes and eggs in the kitchen and that was all I had!”

Long after we’d moved away from that rental to a bigger house in another neighborhood, Emeline contracted a long and debilitating illness that eventually robbed her of the ability to digest food.  When I last visited her she was hooked up to a stomach feeding tube, happily ensconced in the sunroom watching cartoons under the watchful eye of her caretaker.

After she died, making caponata was my way of re-visiting Emeline. She taught me how to make the Italian “relish” in an absolutely easy and foolproof way—baked in the oven!  She simply diced her eggplant, onions, tomatoes, celery, and olives and added a quarter-cup olive oil, some balsamic vinegar, and that was it — slow and low in the oven until all the vegetables were softened and the flavors melded. 

One day, missing Emeline, and eggplant out of season, I thought I’d try making her potato salad.  It seemed simple enough: potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, oil, vinegar, salt & pepper.  When it was done, I tasted it eagerly but clearly, something was missing.  The next attempt, I added tuna and olives, thinking it was sort of a Niçoise-version of potato salad, but that didn’t taste right either.

Over time I continued to try and fell short every attempt.  Finally, I thought of visiting our old neighborhood and looking in on Larry.  There he was hunched over and tinkering among his magnificent stand of beautiful, beautiful rose bushes.  Gracious as ever, he invited me in.

“Larry, do you have Emeline’s recipes?  Would you mind if I looked through them?  Copied some down?”

“Sure” he said heading into the kitchen.  He grabbed a ledger book, over-sized and filled with handwritten recipes and recorded dinner party menus complete with what she’d served, the dates and the guests.

“I’m trying to make her potato salad and I can’t seem to remember all the ingredients.  She served it for lunch one day and it had hard-boiled eggs…”

“Pompeian Salad — that’s what you’re looking for. Here it is,” he said pointing to the recipe he’d paged to:

Pompeian Salad

Potatoes                                Eggs
Oil & vinegar                          Salt & pepper

“Hmmm.  Nothing else?”  I asked him.  “Was there tuna?”   

“No. No tuna.”  

“Capers?  Olives?”

“No, nothing else.   Just potatoes and the eggs.”

I was stumped.  I couldn’t imagine what was missing. 

“Larry?  By any chance do you still have the oil and vinegar Emeline used to use?” 


“Would you mind showing them to me?”

And there was the answer: Bertolli olive oil and tarragon vinegar!  

There was the missing taste — tarragon.  An herb I rarely had and never used, so I hadn’t a clue what it tasted like!  I couldn’t wait to get some and try it out. 

“This is delicious” my husband told me as he downed forkful after forkful of Emeline’s creation. It would never best the potato salad of his childhood or mine, but down here in Durham, it was a trip to a deli by way of Pompeii.                                


  1. Still hoping for more on your wonderful cousins.

  2. Interesting............this is the potato salad we had growing up but I never heard it called by that name. My dad is from Sicily, you know :)

  3. jules! can't believe you had that same potato salad! it's the Italian