When I was a boy, Memorial Day was called Decoration Day and was observed on May 30th. I don’t remember if my father had the day off from work, but we decorated the graves of my father’s grandmother and grandfather on that day or the Sunday nearest to it. They were buried in the small cemetery across the road from the white frame church where I was baptized and confirmed and where my parents are buried today.
It was Mom who planted the flowers on the graves each year at the end of May. She was usually joined by other women in the church who brought their children too. If it didn’t rain, it was fun for us kids.
I didn’t know that Decoration Day was started to remember soldiers killed in the Civil War and later extended to include all Americans who died serving in the military. Our families had not immigrated to the United States until after that war, and we did not have any close relatives who died in either the First or Second World War. But other families remembered loved ones who had served, and there were flags amid the flowers.
Most of the stones memorialized the old and the very young. Our family contributed some of the latter: My stillborn brother, “Baby Boy Rang,” and my father’s four-year-old brother Victor who died of “inflammation of the bowel” in a car on the gravel road that wound 50 miles through the north woods to the nearest hospital in Ashland, Wisconsin.
Sometime in the 1950’s we began calling it Memorial Day, and in 1968 Congress passed a law to make the fourth Monday in May Memorial Day, just so the gas companies could raise prices for the first three-day weekend of the summer. But whether we call it Decoration Day or Memorial Day, it is still a time to remember those who died as soldiers fighting for their country or as citizens who helped build our communities and nation.
Besides flowers, I always associate Memorial Day with summer. Sometimes it was cold and rainy, but this was the time when the Rang family would have its first picnic of the year. We would take hot dogs, beans and potato salad along with pop for us kids and beer for Mom and Dad to some lake nearby where we could fish a little, listen to the birds, pick flowers and watch tadpoles.
Memorial Day through Labor Day is potato salad season. As a full-blooded German, I like potato salad. Mom’s was very good, my sister Patsy’s and my sister-in-law Dee’s are excellent, but Jerri’s potato salad is outstanding. I have been known to get up in the night just so I could have another spoonful of the stuff.
Jerri learned to make her potato salad by watching her mother. Neither one of them had a recipe, so I had to force Jerri to list the ingredients, estimate quantities and explain what she did. This was a challenge. After I had entered the list into my trusty word processor I told her I thought it had hard-boiled eggs. “Oh, I forgot them. Boil four,” says she. You can appreciate my problem. Now that we have made it together, however, I can assure you that it’s not hard to make, though you might want to tweak the seasonings a bit to suit your taste.
THE MAIN INGREDIENTS:
6 – 8 medium potatoes (about 7 or 8 cups sliced thin)
1 medium onion (2 inches in diameter) (1/2 cup finely chopped)
2 stalks celery with leaves (1/2 to 3/4 cup finely chopped)
4 large eggs
FOR THE DRESSING:
1 cup mayonnaise or salad dressing
1/2 cup sour cream
1 1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. white pepper
2 tsp. prepared yellow mustard
1 tsp. vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. dill weed (optional)
FOR FINISHING THE SALAD:
Paprika and parsley for garnish (optional)
Wash and boil the potatoes till done in unsalted water. Boil the eggs four or five minutes, cover them and set the pan aside for another nine or ten minutes. Drain and cool the eggs for ten minutes in ice water, then peel and chop them into about a quarter inch dice.
Clean and chop the onion and celery into a 1/8 to 3/16 inch dice and set them aside. You should have between one half and three quarters of a cup of each vegetable. Mix the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl while the potatoes and eggs are cooling.
Drain the potatoes when they are tender and allow them to cool for a few minutes. When they are cool enough to handle, peel and slice them thinly into a large mixing bowl. The slicer side of a kitchen grater is the perfect tool for doing this. Pour the dressing over the warm potatoes and mix thoroughly. Then add the chopped eggs, onion and celery and stir well.
Let the salad rest for ten minutes or so, then taste it. This is when you learn how to be a great cook: If the salad seems too dry, add a little more mayonnaise and sour cream. If it is too bland, add a little salt and/or vinegar. Keep track of what you do so you can make this salad again to your exact taste. Put the salad into a serving bowl and sprinkle it with paprika and parsley if you wish.
NOTES: It is important that the potatoes be warm when you add the dressing. The warm potatoes absorb the seasonings from the dressing much better than do cold potatoes. Unlike commercial potato salad made with diced or cubed potatoes, this salad has a smoother texture and lacks the starchy potato flavor you can taste when you bite into a piece of potato.