of the Past, Pasta
down a childhood memory in recipes for macaroni salad
Blame it on Metroland. After the paper went and named
Oliver’s as having the best burger (again) in the Capital
Region, I simply had to give it a try. Immediately. My husband
by now knows not to question his pregnant wife’s quirky food
cravings, so off we went, and, yes, the burger was spectacular.
But what really grabbed my attention was, of all things, the
accompanying macaroni salad. I inhaled my side before commandeering
my husband’s. The children quickly yielded their portions;
they knew better than to argue with their mother, particularly
when she had that maniacal gleam in her eyes and a sharp fork
More typically, macaroni salad is an inedible clump on the
side of the plate, maybe camouflaged somewhat by pink tomatoes
and limp lettuce, more likely shoved into the kind of plastic
cup you’re offered to use when giving a urine sample. Reminiscent
of the gobs of paste you used back in first-grade art class,
macaroni salad as it is served many places these days comprises
three parts mediocre mayonnaise to one part pasty elbow macaroni.
It makes the dishwashy coleslaw side that’s often offered
as its substitute look downright delicious.
But at Oliver’s, the macaroni salad was a nostalgic perfection.
Proust had his madeleines. I have my mother’s macaroni salad,
which I remember her serving toward the end of our long days
at the lake, which began early enough in the morning when
it was often still chilly, and the grass was always wet with
dew. We would eat as many as three meals there, since we often
stayed into the evening. In the mornings, we’d eat freshly
baked blueberry muffins; for lunch, sandwiches and fruit,
maybe some chips. In the evenings, my parents would retreat
to the picnic area, fire up a grill, and prepare a feast that
often included chicken, burgers and dogs, corn on the cob
and tossed salad, with brownies and pie for desserts. And,
yes, macaroni salad. Somehow, my mother managed to pack it
in such a way that it would still be chilled when she served
it. Elbow macaroni and tiny dices of celery, radish and scallion
and flecks of parsley, bathed in just the right amount of
creamy dressing. Enjoying this deliciously cool-crisp combination
of textures while watching the sun sink lower toward the lake
was something I had sort of forgotten about.
Until that visit to Oliver’s. Suddenly, I had to make this
dish, even if I couldn’t re-create the exact ambience of memory.
The problem was, how? Mom, always niggardly when it comes
to sharing anything (especially recipes), feigned memory loss—that
is, when she didn’t taunt me with would-be clues that, ultimately,
were dead ends. “Oh, I think I remember,” she would exclaim
over the phone. “It was the salad with the little chunks of
pineapple, right?” Wrong.
Not to be deterred, I perused my cookbook collection. Nothing
printed in the last two decades, it seems, includes any reference
to something as mundane as “macaroni,” instead offering numerous,
often good but usually fancified takes on “pasta” salads.
So I looked to James Beard’s seminal American Cooking,
figuring that at its date of publication, 1972 (around the
time I was no doubt savoring my mother’s macaroni salad),
macaroni salad was surely a must for any cookbook. Wrong again.
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts cookbooks from the early ’70s
also failed me, as did a few specialized slim volumes (e.g.,
Entertain the Easy Way!) from the ’50s. A search through
the files of epicurious.com revealed mostly newfangled ways
with the old standard: the additions of chevre, arugula, cannelloni,
Here I had been updating my mother’s old standbys for years,
using such ingredients. Now, when I wanted the old standby,
I couldn’t find it. Part of the problem seemed to be a nationwide
fear of using mayonnaise in the summertime combined with the
culture’s rush to exchange flavor with nonfat products—OK,
that’s simplistic, but it’s the gut feeling I had when studying
Good Housekeeping magazine’s version of macaroni salad,
which substitutes nonfat cottage cheese and lowfat milk for
mayo. Eww. Martha Stewart’s online recipe finder came a little
closer, in that at least it used mayonnaise, but combined
with sour cream, white wine vinegar, sugar, nutmeg and black
pepper. Instinctively I knew that the dish I was after included
something besides mayo, but I just doubted it was sour cream,
and I knew darn well that my mother never would have put nutmeg,
or, for that matter, Martha’s petite peas or Black Forest
ham, in her macaroni salad.
I finally hit pay dirt in a 1942 edition of the Good Housekeeping
Cookbook, edited by Dorothy B. Marsh. There, on page 304,
just to the right of Guest-What Salad, was a recipe for Best-Ever
Macaroni, and it included the requisite diced celery, scallions,
radishes, parsley and, yes, mayonnaise. The instructions called
for mixing a cup of mayo with two tablespoons vinegar, a half
teaspoon of celery seeds and salt and pepper. Nervously, I
set about preparing my memory dish one morning when the rest
of the family was still asleep. I figured if I failed, they
wouldn’t be around to witness my frustration. By this time,
I felt like Rapunzel’s mother, only instead of a prenatal
craving for something healthy like broccoli rabe, I was near
tears over a fattening side dish.
As I poured the dry pasta into boiling water, I noticed that
even Muller’s has gone gourmet; the package of elbow macaroni
proudly proclaimed “perfectly al-dente in 7 minutes!” The
diced veggies gave me my first gasp of happy surprise: I had
a vivid recollection of looking at that red, pale green and
white mixture, decades before, and being reminded of pictures
of the Italian flag in Mom’s faded Let’s Cook Italian!
cookbooks. At first, the mayo mix looked like too much (like
my mother, I omitted the celery seed), and I feared I’d end
up with a gloppy mess such I have described above, but when
I blended in the finished and cooled pasta and vegetables
to the bowl, it looked like just the right proportion.
Later that night, as we feasted on this decidedly old-fashioned
meal, my sister observed, “Mom, this macaroni salad tastes
just like yours!” She grew excited about this—not so much
the dish itself, but the memories that it brought forth. “It’s
just like what we used to have in the summertime, at the lake,”
she continued and, catching my eye, happily joined me in a
trip back to that time in our lives. My mother, meanwhile,
said nothing. In her silence, she betrayed on one level her
annoyance that I had somehow “beaten” her by mastering this
recipe that had once been solely hers. But more than that,
her silence conveyed her unwillingness to travel back, to
wax nostalgic for the family moments that my sister and I
found so warm and wonderful. I had recaptured a memory in
a dish, but in so doing, made the bittersweet realization
that our mother, now in her 80s, had no desire to revisit
the past or share in our memories.
here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.
beer is back at the Van Dyck (237 Union
St., Schenectady), with 60 kegs of ale already
in the fermenters and another 20 being brewed
this week. The first batches, now on tap, are
an unfiltered pale ale and a full-bodied brown,
with a blond ale to follow next week. A porter,
amber and wheat beer will be on tap in the weeks
to come. Troy’s Michael Beauchea is the Van Dyck’s
brewer, and the brewery itself is the only true
German brew house in the Capital Region, with
the precise temperature control necessary for
the production of pilsner-style beer. Brewery
tours will be available, as well as beer tasting
for private and corporate groups. The Van Dyck
is open 4-11 Tuesday-Thursday and 4-midnight Friday-Saturday;
for more info, call the restaurant at 381-1111.
. . . Also in Schenectady, the Farmer’s Market
continues until the end of October, with local
farmers selling their wares Tuesdays at St. Luke’s
Church at 1216 State St. and Thursdays at City
Hall on the corner of Franklin and Jay streets.
You’ll find everything from vegetables to flowers
to handcrafted candles, and there’s even a chair
massage available. . . . Remember to pass your
scraps to Metroland (e-mail email@example.com).
want your feedback
you eaten at any
recently reviewed restaurants?
Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...
address not required to submit your feedback, but required to
be placed in running for a Van Dyck Gift Certificate.
very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's
at Ogdens. You review described my dining
experience perfectly. This wasn't the case
with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or
Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree
that a restaurant can have an off night
so I'll give the second unit on Central
Avenue a try.
yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back.
Second, I haven't had a chance to visit
Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading
would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant
- it's not that far away. People traveled
from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam.
From his background, I'm sure the chef's
sauce is excellent and that is the most
important aspect of an Italian restaurant.
Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on
the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm
looking forward to trying this restaurant
- I look forward to Metroland every Thursday
especially for the restaurant review. And
by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam
location and is opening a new bistro on
Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running
in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake
Bistro. It should be great!
comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants
being as "standardized as McDonald's"
shows either that you have eaten at only
a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or
that you have some prejudices to work out.
That the physical appearances are not what
you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing
on the food. And after all, that is what
the main focus of the reviews should be.
Not the physical appearances, which is what
most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on
Central Avenue, may not look the greatest,
but the food is excellent there. And the
menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian,
chicken, and more..