As many of you have probably realised by now, I do love potatoes in all their guises. I was on a word-hunt recently (I forget what word), and came across some mid-nineteenth century sentiments on this most adaptable vegetable. For some inexplicable reason, my thoughts turned immediately to potato salad - which in turn made me realise that I had no idea about the history of that dish. So, today I begin the search for the first known recipe for potato salad. I wonder should that include the first recipe which includes potato as a main ingredient even if it not be named ‘potato salad? And how many ingredients would negate the choice of ‘potato’ in the name?
Firstly, I give you the article that started this musing. It is from The New American Gardener, Containing Practical Directions on the Culture of Fruits and Vegetables, by Thomas Green Fessenden, published in 1842
Use.—The use of the potato, as an article of diet both for man and beast, is, probably, more extensive, and more common, than that of any other vegetable production. From having no peculiarity of taste, and consisting chiefly of starch, it approaches near to the qualities of the flour of grain; "and for this reason," says Loudon, "it is the most universally liked, and can be used longer in constant succession by the same individual without becoming unpalatable, than any other vegetable, the seeds of grasses excepted." Neill observes, "so generally is it relished, and so nutritious is it accounted, that, on many tables, it now appears almost every day in the year."
An Essay on the Solanum tuberosum, from the Philadelphia Journal of the Medical and Physical Sciences, gives the following summary view of the excellent qualities of this superlative root:-
"Having its origin in a warm climate, it was supposed to be intolerant of cold, and upon that account incapable of cultivation in a more northern clime. But experience has shown the contrary, and the potato is naturalized almost in every region. With the lower classes of people, it is one of the greatest blessings which the soil produces, forming 'flour without a mill, and bread without an oven,' and, at all seasons of the year, an agreeable, wholesome dish, without expensive condiments. What resources does the potato present to us? Its stalk, considered as a textile plant, furnishes in Austria a sort of flax—when burned, it yields much potash—its apples [i.e the “fruit”, meaning the potato itself], when ripe and crushed, ferment, and give spirits by distillation—its tubercles, made into a pulp, are a substitute for soap, in bleaching. Cooked by steam, the potato is a most healthy food. By different manipulations it furnishes two kinds of flour, a gruel and a parenchyma, which may be applied to increase the bulk of bread made from grain. Treated chymically, it is converted into beer, vinegar, spirits, &c."
So, by 1842, the potato - a New World food - was pretty well established in the Old World (after an unpromising start) as food for humans (the ‘poorer sort’ of human that is,) rather than for pigs.
I understand there is a reference to ‘potato salad’ in a public document from the State of Massachusetts in 1835, although I have yet to track it down. The earliest actual recipe with the name ‘potato salad’ I have found so far (I feel sure there are earlier ones) is in an English magazine from the same year as the article quoted from above - The Gardener's Magazine and Register of Rural and Domestic Improvement (London, 1842.) It is a fine example of a ‘Continental’ salad recommended to English hosts and housekeepers, with an adaptation suitable for the poor cottager who may not have oil available, but would certainly have onions, and presumably also eggs.
In your cottage gardening, when you are giving directions for the cooking and use of sundry vegetables, perhaps you might add a mode of making potato salad much used in some parts of the Continent, and which would not only be useful to the cottager, but is thought by many to be delicious eating, particularly with salmon, or fish in general, or indeed any thing else. The mixture of vinegar, oil, mustard, salt and hard egg is the same as for common salad, and according to taste: the potatoes are sliced when cold, with beet-root also sliced. The cottager may merely use the vinegar, salt, and mustard, and add sliced onions. (Camb.Chron. and Journ. April 2, 1842)