It’s that time of year again. The weather is warming up and folks around here start thinking about those “dinners on the ground” like they used to have long ago. That’s Primitive Baptist talk for an outdoor buffet-style food gathering, a potluck with delicious dishes contributed by the party-goers. They called it “dinner on the ground” because they usually spread out blankets on the ground and laid the covered dishes on the blankets.
I guess they didn’t have easy fold-out tables back then!
I can remember every May the Moseleys and Wilsons (my grandfather’s and grandmother’s families) would meet for a reunion about the same time as Papa’s birthday, May 31. Our world seems too busy these days to take time for such a happy family gathering, but thank goodness I have the pictures and the memories.
These eat-til-you-pop (or drop) events were always held in the warmer months. I guess Papa’s birthday was one of the first to come along on the calendar, so that’s about when our first potluck of the summer was. The family tradition of dinner on the grounds is older than my great-grandparents and probably older than their parents, a tradition likely passed down from my Scots-Irish roots.
Of course there were usually three different kinds of potato salad and two or three different fried chickens. I was a kid during the hay day. Most of my elderly relatives were not quite “elderly” and still traveled. There were still some youngins among us back then too. Now, most everyone has lost touch, grown up, or passed on.
First, all of Papa’s thirteen brothers and sisters started dying through the years, and two years ago Papa passed away. He was 95 and quite a satisfied old guy. Now, there are no more reunions for my family, but every time I make potato salad, fried chicken or blueberry salad, I think about those times I spent as a kid hiding behind lawn chairs, listening to the cackling of my aunts and watching the men folk congregate around a piece of lawn equipment or some other manly thing like that.
I can remember the plethora of tables spread as far as the eye could see, filled with all kinds of country treats. There was usually one whole table just for desserts alone–my granny was infamous for making several. Her and her sweet tooth, you know. Granny would cook for days before the big event. The refrigerator would be filled to overflowing and things that could be left out would line the top of the washer and dryer in the laundry room.
Floating somewhere near the dessert table was Granny’s Blueberry Congealed Salad. Not quite dessert, not quite salad, it hung somewhere in the middle. Me, I could actually make a dinner of it!
The night before reunion day, Granny would take one large package of grape gelatin and dissolve it in 1 3/4 cup boiling water in her old 9″ x 13″ Tupperware. (It had a lid, and that way she could keep the bugs off it outside while people weren’t serving themselves.) She’d let that cool down a bit and add a whole 20 ounce can of crushed pineapple. If you make this, be sure you don’t drain it! Then she would stir in a 20 ounce can of blueberry pie filling. She’d let that set up overnight.
Reunion morning she’d make the most delectable cloud-like topping to spread atop the blueberry gelatin. She’d beat ½ cup sugar and a ½ cup sour cream into a softened 8 ounce block of cream cheese. Sometimes she’d add a teaspoon of vanilla, but sometimes she might forget. Once in a while she’d sprinkle a few drained blueberries on top for looks, but usually that time-consuming touch would be reserved for simpler events.
I know congealed salads have become quite a comical thing for people who aren’t from the south or the mountain south, but this is one that no one would laugh at. At our reunions and gatherings, it would always disappear while those orange congealed salads might still be sitting there when people were packing up to go home.
I have tried and tried to pin Granny down and get her “Tater Salad” recipe, as the country folk around here call it. Unfortunately she suffered a stroke several years back, and I am not sure she remembers it exactly. It was one of those recipes that grew and became life-like in its yearly progression. I can tell you what I know about it–but the secrets are still missing. I never saw another salad on our table like it. Of course it had potatoes, and its binding was obviously some kind of mayonnaise, with a tiny bit of mustard, combo. But the unique thing my granny added to her
“tater salad” was tiny cubes of sharp cheddar cheese, tiny cubes of her own homemade Icicle Pickles, a chopped egg and a dash of celery seed, with salt and pepper to taste.
She always pealed the potatoes and cut them in ¼ inch cubes before she boiled them. Don’t over cook them! They need to be firm, but tender. I remember seeing some of the potato salads made with mashed potatoes. Yuk! I don’t know if the potatoes were over cooked or if the salad was mashed on purpose, with no distinguishing differences between the potatoes and the other vegetables, but I want to see the chunks!
I always thought the cheddar cheese was a weird idea. And I am not the biggest potato salad fan anyway, but looking back now, I think how her “tater salad” looked so pretty–the dark forest green of her pickles, the buttery yellow of the dressing, and the bright orange of the cheddar. If she had it, she might add more color and flavor with tiny bits of pimento. As far as potato salads go, hers was about the only one I would eat.
I hope you’ll be invited to a potluck gathering soon, one that rivals the dinner on the grounds that were so popular way back when. You could take the old standard fried chicken or plate of deli meats from the super market. But maybe, just maybe, you might try your hand at Granny’s Blueberry Salad, or take her idea for potato salad with cheddar cheese. Maybe you’ll create your own family heirloom. Just be sure to write it down and pass it on before your family tradition gets lost in our busy world. Otherwise, you’ll have tater secrets and congealed dreams.