Chris Carlson can keep a secret.
It’s the same one her mother kept, and her grandmother and great-grandmother before that.
The secret isn’t some shadowy episode in her family past.
It’s a recipe for potato salad, darn good potato salad, for sure.
Carlson dishes it up for the lunch crowd at her Coffee Pot Cafe in Hillyard. She goes through maybe 100 pounds a week. Most gets nestled alongside the sandwiches, but some goes in carry-out containers. One customer buys 10 pounds to go at a time, she said.
But don’t ask her to reveal the secret recipe.
“If I do, my grandmother would be turning over in her grave,” Carlson said. “Grandma didn’t want just anybody to know how to make it.”
The recipe is so closely guarded that Carlson hasn’t even shared it with her own daughter. “It’s not time to tell her yet,” she said. The daughter is 26.
Obviously, Carlson believes good potato salad is special.
Maybe that’s because it is such an inseparable part of summer, picnics and the outdoors.
“You’ve got to have something for the ants to crawl into,” she joked while whipping up a batch.
“It’s just American. It’s like apple pie.”
“Everybody thinks they have the best recipe,” Carlson said.
Not everyone has a recipe that is four generations old.
Carlson said hers came from her great-grandmother who emigrated from Ireland to southern Idaho, a potato mecca, in the late 1800s.
She brought the recipe with her, and passed it on to one of her daughters, who in turn, passed it on to just one of her daughters. That was Carlson’s mother, who died earlier this year.
Carlson remembers her mother once telling her, “‘This will make you famous.”’
She’s getting there.
When Spokane Chrysler-Plymouth wanted a caterer for its summer employee campout, the planners chose Carlson mostly because of the quality of her potato salad.
“I’m kind of particular about my potato salad,” said Deanna Dunn, who picked Carlson for the job. “Hers was good potato salad.”
Carlson will reveal some of her tricks. She said she uses lots of eggs, French’s mustard, Best Foods mayonnaise, dill pickles and Walla Walla sweet onions in season. Dried dill weed adds some extra zip. She chops the onions and pickles in a food processer for a fine consistency that blends the flavors.
“The key to it is getting enough eggs in it,” she said.
If done right, a potato salad should have a distinct yellow color from the egg yolks and mustard, she said. Don’t use vinegar or pickle juice, she cautioned. That drowns the potatoes and ruins their flavor.
Others have tried to imitate her. “Nobody could ever figure it out,” she said.
That’s because of her secret ingredient. It’s not written down and was only passed to her from the word of her mother.
“It’s in my head,” she said.
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