Thursday, July 4, 2013

Finding the Universal in the Particular: The Fourth of July and Crawfish Potato Salad

Thy potaaaatoes make ty-yranny trembllllle, whe-en bo-orne by the red, white and bluuuuue....

O beautiful for Spanish moss
In oak and cypress trees,
Fats Domino, the fais do-do,
And making groceries.
Louisiane! Louisiane!
Thy swamps and rivers shine.
Your name I bless
You're such a mess
But, cher, I'm glad you're mine.

I wrote this (admittedly silly) song last Independence Day. (Writing silly songs I never show to anyone [except you, Internet] is a hobby of mine.)

I love "America the Beautiful," not least because of the song's terrific images: its amber waves of grain, its purple mountain majesties, its parallel shining seas. At the same time, a little petulant part of me rebels against the very images that make me love this song. I live in Louisiana. I've never seen a mountain in my life. Amber waves of grain? More like chartreuse waves of cane. My state is no less a part of America than any other, so shouldn't we be included in the national iconography, too?

I'm probably a little hypersensitive on this topic. I love my hometown; I love my home region. I get sick of seeing the South represented as "the other."

My original intention was to use red white and blue fingerlings, but alas, nor fate nor my grocery store produce section smiled upon my culinary color-coding aspirations-- i.e., I couldn't find enough good ones.

But if there is one universal experience, it's this: everyone thinks her place of origin is misrepresented. And that's because everyone's place of origin is misrepresented, from New Delhi to New Mexico, from Wyoming to Winnipeg, from sea to shining estuary.

My creative writing students frequently fall into one particular literary trap, which I've come to shorthand "non-specificity." Their stories aren't set in any particular locale. Their characters aren't members of any particular ethnicity or social class or religion. These fledgling writers are afraid that if they make their stories too specific, the stories won't be "relatable."

The surprising fact is this: non-specific stories are, generally speaking, forgettable and bland. Specific stories, on the other hand, are much more likely to sink their nails into our skin and set our veins on fire. When this happens, it's usually, I believe, because the writer has found a way to find the universal in the particular-- to wed the "relatability" my students crave with the vividness of a unique setting/situation/cast of characters.

And the same is true of America. All of our bright, heart-rending particularities add up to one glorious, hideous, profound universal: our nation. The mountains of Colorado that sent Katherine Lee Bates into poetic ecstasies are my birthright, as much as the cypress-haunted marshlands down the road from my house. My marshlands belong in turn to folks in Iowa and New York, their wind turbines and subway tunnels belong to me, and the list goes on. Every corner of the country belongs to all of us, as all of us belong to each other. Different as our landscapes and viewpoints might be, we are connected; we are responsible for each other.

So what does this have to do with crawfish potato salad?

This dish is my way of wedding a culinary particularity (crawfish) with a Fourth of July universal (potato salad). Originally a lobster potato salad at Deb Perelman's marvelous Smitten Kitchen, the salad works beautifully with the (for me) more local and (for everyone) more budget-friendly crawfish subbed in for the lobster. It's a great way to celebrate the birth of the whole country and my own little corner of it at the same time.

E Pluribus Unum, y'all. Happy Fourth of July.

Recipe: Crawfish Potato Salad

Adapted the Smitten Kitchen's Lobster Potato Salad, which is adapted in turn from Ina Garten


1 1/2 pounds unpeeled small Yukon gold potatoes (Deb used fingerling-- I think redwhiteandblue fingerlings would be fun)
 Kosher or sea salt
3 tablespoons Champagne or white wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon minced or pressed garlic
1 large or extra-large egg yolk, ideally at room temperature
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine
3 tablespoons drained capers
6 scallions, thinly sliced (yielding about 1 cup)
2 medium stalks celery, diced small (about 1/4 inch, yielding about 1/2 cup)
1/2 cup finely diced red onion
3 pounds boiled crawfish, peeled (This is the amount we used-- I think you could use just a tad more if you wanted to, but it's by no means necessary)
1 lemon
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh tarragon (Deb used parsley instead-- and we cut down the tarragon to 1 tablespoon)


Cook the potatoes: Place the potatoes in a large pot and cover with an inch or two over water. Add 1 tablespoon salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 15 to 25 minutes, depending on the size of the potatoes, until just tender. (A bamboo skewer is ideal to test them. Me, I used a fork.) Drain in a colander, and let potatoes cool for 5 minutes. Cut potatoes into quarters or halves (or fingerlings into 1/2- to 1-inch segments) and place them in a large bowl.

Make the vinaigrette: Whisk together the vinegar, mustard, garlic, egg yolk, 1 teaspoon salt, and many grinds of black pepper (Ina recommends you use a full teaspoon of pepper). Whisking constantly and vigorously, pour the oil in in a thin drizzle, ideally making an emulsion. Stir in the wine and capers.

Assemble the salad: While the potatoes are still very warm, pour half the vinaigrette on the potatoes and toss them gently, allowing them to soak up the vinaigrette. Stir in the scallions, celery, red onion, lobster, and add enough vinaigrette to moisten. Reserve any remaining vinaigrette for later. Add the zest and juice of the lemon, the tarragon or parsley, and more salt and pepper to taste. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour to allow flavors to blend. Taste for seasonings and add more vinaigrette, if necessary. (We didn't find it necessary.)

Serve: This salad is especially good served closer to room temperature.

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