I never called my paternal grandmother ‘abuela’ during her life. We had a fairly distant relationship, even if she was one of the few relatives I saw on a near regular basis while growing up. In fact, she asked us not to call her that. Instead, she was my Mama Adilia—a quiet, tough-as-nails woman who remains as much a mystery now over a decade after her passing as she was when I was a timid, young child. But despite our lack of afternoons braiding hair and baking cookies, I always did and continue to love her. Moreover, I want my son to know about who she was as well. And all of that begins with something as simple as a recipe for ensalada de papa.
My Mama Adilia’s potato salad was a holiday staple throughout my entire childhood.
She was the matriarch of my family—my father’s mother, and our eldest living relative in the States. As such, everyone in our family gathered at her house for nearly every Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years I can remember. Many of the other foods would change year to year, but hers was ever-present: its crunchy bits of celery and flavorful manzanilla olives that I lovingly pushed around on my plate (which I never ate, though I loved the flavor they left behind). Moreover, everyone in the family insisted on taking some home for leftovers—in part because it was delicious, but I’d also like to think it was also because it allowed us to keep that connection to one another for a few more days in a tangible way.
When I reached my junior year of high school, my abuela got sick. First, it was her kidneys and a series of rounds of dialysis. Then her health worsened. The day she was scheduled for open-heart surgery, I crawled into her hospital bed and we watched a Cantinflas movie together (the only time I think we ever did that). I held her hand and prayed as I used to. When they finally came to roll her out to surgery, I had no clue how much everything was about to change.
She remained in the ICU for weeks. I visited every day, spending hours alternating between her room and the waiting room. I had faith she would get out, but it never happened. The last few moments we spent together, she was barely conscious. I tried to tell her about myself a bit. I told her how much I hoped we could maybe talk more once she was out. Then one day, they told us she’d had an intestinal rupture, told us she would need surgery, told us it probably wouldn’t work. And they were right.
I’d never lost someone before my Mama Adilia passed.
CREDIT: Photo provided by Priscilla Blossom
The understanding that our time here is limited, and that we should do all we can to ask the questions we want answers to while we can, was lost on me. What can I remember about my Mama Adilia? She was Catholic. She worked past retirement age cleaning houses for affluent families. She was born in Nicaragua. She had a difficult life (among other things, her husband was murdered and she raised her three kids by herself). And of course, there was her ensalada de papa.
After my grandmother died, my mother took over in making the annual potato salad. We got together for a few more holiday meals, but slowly everyone went their separate ways. The loss of the family matriarch was too deep to continuously keep us together. Not even an old family recipe could entice us enough away from our own lives to gather as we used to. But where did the recipe come from, anyway? Where the hell did a potato salad recipe, of all things, fit into a mostly Nicaraguan holiday meal?
My Mama Adilia was a private person. She took many secrets to the grave—among them may well be the origin of this delectable holiday salad. I had to ask my mom if she had any ideas.
“She learned it from her aunt, who raised her,” she explained. The answer was brief because, unsurprisingly, she didn’t know much more about it. Perhaps, then, it truly is an old family recipe. Maybe my Mama Adilia’s tia learned it from her mother or someone else in her family. And maybe it’s up to me to keep the tradition alive.
I come from a family of immigrants. That means the majority of my relatives came to this country with little more than the clothes on their backs.
And even if they hadn’t, my parents and ancestors (as far as I know) were never “well off.” The general poverty in Nicaragua, and especially the Sandinista revolution of the 80s, made sure of all that. Just like there were no family heirlooms to hand down when my Mama Adilia passed, there have been none when any other older relatives died. This is true for many Latinxs whose families all had to start over when they made it to the states.
But I do have this one special thing: a family recipe for ensalada de papa, a recipe that I happen to love. And as a mother now, I want to make sure to keep the few bits of tradition I can find within my family alive. My son will never have the chance to meet my Mama Adilia. I will never have the opportunity to finally ask her all those questions I’m itching to have answered: What was her childhood like? Who were her parents, her guardians, her siblings? What was my abuelo (my father’s father) like, and did she ever figure out what happened to him and why? And where the heck did this family recipe come from?
Perhaps it doesn’t matter where it came from, though. Perhaps all that matters is, this holiday season, I can make the salad. I can boil the potatoes and cut up the celery and throw on the mayonnaise and let my kid do the mixing. I can share the few memories and anecdotes about my Mama Adilia with my son, and let him taste just a spoonful of our family’s history.