Grim's Grub: Potato salad - is it safe?

No summer cookout is complete without this dish

Photo illustration /

With July 4 on the horizon, outdoor master chefs will be sharpening their skills and preparing their gear for the biggest challenge of the year - the big summer cookout.

While the protein gets all the fanfare at these cookouts - one can hardly deny you can have a potluck or cookout without your favorite meat - without some kind of potato, you're sunk. This is especially true on July 4, when the burgers might be overcooked, the brats might have been forgotten at home and the chicken might be dry.

The day is still salvageable so long as someone remembers the potato salad.

Just about everyone by now knows that the potato is a New World crop. Until the 16th century it was found only in Central and South America. Conquistadors returning to Europe helped to spread it throughout the Old World.

At first it was considered nothing but animal feed. Even when the nutritional value of the spud was discovered, it took psychology to get starving peasants to eat it. You might recall my column about a French scientist who tricked the poor into "stealing" potatoes from a local lord by burying them in a field and paying guards to act like they were keeping people out.


Like the tomato, once believed to be poisonous, it took a lot of convincing to talk people into eating potatoes. After all, everything but the tuber itself is poisonous, even earning the name "fruits of the devil."

Once people saw the light, however, they almost certainly realized the root's delicious, versatile nature. Salad was not an early recipe, with our current style of potato salad coming approximately three centuries later.

Peasants in Germany grew small, sometimes bitter spuds as cheap famine food even before the end of the 1500s, but it took a king to realize the potato potential.

In the 1700s, a cool, wet summer put the entire country at risk by destroying the wheat growing industry there. Frederick the Great saw the threat of famine gnawing not only at his countrymen, but also his army. Even at this time the lowly potato was unpopular, so he resorted to ordering rural governments to pressure farmers to plant potatoes in 1754.

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The result was almost miraculous, as the nutrient rich potato single-handedly ended the famine, earning a new, more positive reputation. Those potato farms, sadly, also fed his enemies who raided after his death and succeeded in their war efforts by feeding themselves with the potatoes they found abundant in nearby fields.

The Germans had grown to love potatoes, and as such, invented the first potato salads. German cookery often includes combinations of piquant acids like lime juice or vinegar, sweet sugar and salty brines, such as in sauerbraten, sauerkraut and recipes for wilted greens.

That same process was used with German potato salads, which are steaming hot, slightly tart and fatty with bacon grease.

This found its way back to the New World with German immigrants. While potato salad stayed hot for many years, in the early 20th century commercially bottled mayonnaise became available on store shelves. It wasn't long after that various "salads," especially protein salads, became popular. Eventually, the German hot potato salad got the same treatment and became the potato salad that we know and love today.


Cold potato salad has long been a staple of cookouts and potlucks, and since at least the '80s has been the target of some suspicion. Why? Because of fairly common, mild food poisoning incidents at such gatherings. Some posit that the culprit is the egg found in the mayo, but food science says it may actually be the potato, as the mayo is virtually sterile and acidic.

Boiled potatoes are a perfect breeding ground for bacteria. They are low acid, dense, starchy and require hand-cutting for a good potato salad.

This just means you should take extra care to ensure that all sides at a cookout stay in a safe temperature zone, as properly prepared foods are perfectly safe so long as you control the temperature. This means keeping hot foods very hot and keeping cold foods very cold.

This can be done with salads by keeping their bowls in a cooler or tray filled with ice, covered when not serving.

Potato Salad for a Crowd

Photo illustration /

Courtesy of Patty Borman and Lois Young in the "Backus Area Cornfest Cookbook 2006"

  • 10 pounds red potatoes, cooked and cubed
  • 2 dozen eggs, hardboiled
  • 1 1/2 quarts salad dressing
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon mustard
  • Salt to taste

Mix all ingredients until thoroughly coated and allow to set overnight.
German Potato Salad

German potato salad with red potatos, bacon, red onions and parsley.
Photo illustration /

Courtesy of Rose Jorgenson from "Treasured Recipes, Countryside Food Co-op 2006"


  • 5 slices bacon, diced
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup white vinegar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 2-3 cans sliced potatoes or 4 cups cooked, sliced potatoes
  • 1/2 cup onion, sliced thin
  • 1/4 cup parsley, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon celery seeds

Fry the bacon in a skillet until crisp, then use a slotted spoon to remove the bacon. Use a low to medium low heat to render out the bacon grease.
Add the flour, sugar, salt and pepper to the drippings and blend well. In a separate bowl, beat the egg slightly and then add the vinegar, water and lemon juice. Add this gradually to the flour mixture in the skillet and cook until thickened. Add the potatoes, onions, parsley and celery seed. Toss lightly to mix.

Cover and place into a 300-degree oven for 10 minutes. Add the bacon just before serving warm. This recipe yields 6 servings.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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