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New England Recipes Masthead I New Egnland Recipes Masthead II

Potato Salad & French Dressing

HistoryNew England Potato Salad Recipe

A New England summertime favorite at barbecues today! Where did come from? The Boston Journal of Chemistry (vol. 6 no. 10, April 1872, p 112) made this statement, “Anyone who has eaten potato salad at a Parisian hotel will be glad to try it after he gets home.” Did it originate in France?  The earliest published potato salad recipe was found in an 1825 cookbook French Domestic Cooking published in London and authored by an English Physician. “Pommes de Terre en Salade – Potato Salad: When boiled and cold, peel, slice and season them [potatoes] with fine herbs, salt, pepper, oil and vinegar, adding some beet-root and gherkins cut in slices.”

In 1884, Mrs. Lincoln included this Potato Salad recipe in her Boston Cooking School Cook Book. “One pint of cold boiled potatoes, cut in half-inch dice or shaved in thin slices, and seasoned with salt and pepper; the yolk of one hard boiled egg, one heaping tablespoonful of chopped parsley, half a cup of cold beet dice, and a French dressing.” French Dressing recipe: 1 teaspoon salt, ½ teaspoon pepper, 8 tablespoons oil, ¼ teaspoon onion juice, 1 tablespoon vinegar. She added many people like a teaspoonful of made mustard added to French dressing.

French dressing is described as oil and vinegar with salt & pepper and flavored with onion juice. Tracing the dressing back in time, one wonders why it became known as “French Dressing”.

The 1823 American edition of the Cook’s Oracle a cook book originally published in London had this salad recipe: “To make a Cold Hash, or Sallad – Magundy”. It called for shredded meat, pickled oysters, anchovies, cucumbers, lemon, mushrooms, capers, pickles, lettuce “but put not oil and vinegar to the minc’d meat, till it comes to the table”.

Going further back in time this recipe was found. The 1685 (fifth) edition of The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art & Mystery of Cookery approved by Robert May, London had a recipe for a sallet with a dressing. Sallet is the old spelling of salad. “To make a grand Sallet of divers compounds” - the recipe said to use roast capon or any of the following meats: chicken, mutton, veal or tongue. It said to cut the meat into small pieces and place in middle of plate. Around the edge of the plate arrange pickled mushrooms, pickled oysters, lemon, orange, raisins, almonds, blue-figs, Virginia potato, and crucifix pease [peas] plus a few other unknown food items. When all was arranged add “oyl and vinegar beaten together, and poured on it over all”.

This is the earliest recipe to include potatoes which were an accompaniment to the meat salad. The Virginia potato may be referring to the southern sweet potato. It had to have been well liked as the 1823 cook book had a similar recipe minus the potatoes, 138 years later. Both cook books listed oil and vinegar as a dressing. These are English cook books. By 1884 in America, oil and vinegar are referred to as French Dressing. According to modern cook books French Dressing is oil and vinegar with or without paprika that gives it its orange color.  Italian Dressing is oil and vinegar with a mix of herbs and lacks the orange color. Long before the dressing had a country association to its name it was simply oil and vinegar dressing with or without herbs.

As for potato salad some modern cook books still have recipes for potato salad using French dressing i.e. oil and vinegar. One of these is the Joy of Cooking. While other cook books, like Better Homes and Gardens have recipes that called for sprinkling the potatoes with a small amount of vinegar and mixing with mayonnaise. This combination appears to be a modern version of a 1946 recipe found in Ruth Wakefield’s Toll House Tried and True Recipes. Her recipe called for marinating the potatoes in French Dressing which was the common way of making potato salad. In addition, her recipe called for adding mayonnaise when ready to serve.

There are also numerous potato salad recipes that used boiled dressing which is a form of sauce-like mayonnaise.

The potato originated in South America and was grown in Peru. In 1538 it was introduced in Spain. From Spain it spread to central Europe, then to Germany and on into France. The English colonist brought the potato to North America. (from The Wise Encyclopedia of Cookery 1948) Potato salad likely originated in France. French Dressing originated in England.


Toll House Potato Salad Recipe
“Boil medium-sized potatoes (allowing 1 potato for each person) until tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. (Do not overcook or they will be mushy when cut.) Cool* and cut in ½ inch cubes. Peel onions and scrape or grate into the cubed potatoes. (Allow ½ cup onion to 2 cups potatoes.) Marinate lightly with about a 1/3 cup French Dressing or just enough to be absorbed and leave no excess oil. (This seasons potatoes throughout.) Place in refrigerator until serving time. Then add mayonnaise to moisten well. Season with salt and pepper. Chopped pickle or parsley may also be added. Serve in lettuce cups garnished with quartered hard-cooked eggs and wedges of ripe tomatoes with a dot of mayonnaise for topping.”

*Mrs. Lincoln in 1884 noted “Many professional cooks prefer to mix a potato salad while the potatoes are hot, as the salad looks more appetizing, will keep longer, and have less of the soggy peculiar taste than when made with cold potatoes.” On that note, it is probably best to add the marinate when the potatoes are still hot. What is unclear is if the potatoes should remain at room temperature or be placed in the refrigerator to marinate. None of the cook books old or modern specify room temperature or refrigeration during the marinating process.

Author’s Potato Salad Recipe
Boil one potato per person. Cut into ½ inch pieces. Cut up a small onion into small pieces and add to (2 to 3) potatoes. While potatoes are still hot, add mayonnaise mixed with a little mustard (ratio is up to individual taste) until well coated. Fresh cut chives add flavor and brighten up the dish. After mixing, cover the dish and place in refrigerator for 3 to 4 hours, or overnight. That allows the flavors to get into the potatoes. I like it best the next day.