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September – Ann Wagner

You know how it is… “the best laid plans of mice and men” …er, uhm, in this case, the best laid plans of mice and women!  For September’s edition of “A Yummy Year: Cultures, Cooking & Connections” I was planning to cook with a woman I recently met who hails from Ukraine.  Unfortunately, due to the devastating impact of the war on her homeland, she felt unable to revisit happy memories and share cherished favorite Ukrainian recipes when so many there are homeless and living without sufficient water, food, and access to health care.  I recently learned the difference between empathy and sympathy. Sympathy involves understanding from your own perspective. Empathy involves putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and understanding WHY they may have particular feelings. I have empathy and compassion for my new friend as she struggles with grief, concern and worry for friends and family in Ukraine. More than that, I understand why she didn’t want to be featured as this month’s cultural chef.  Given her situation, I would have made the same decision.

Having blogged about a different “cultural chef” every month from January through August, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to do so in September. So, I pivoted, changed directions, and engaged in some creative problem solving…after all, with years of practice, that’s what we women in our prime do best!  Now, it is my pleasure to introduce my “cultural chef” for September, Ann Wagner.  Ann, my mother-in-law for 39 years, passed on August 2, 2019 but still lives on in the hearts of all who knew her.  In honor of her German heritage, her love of family and her ability to cook the world’s BEST-EVER German Potato Salad, I decided to share her story and her recipe!

Ann grew up in East Baltimore, married her high school sweetheart and together raised six children. Later, Ann attended the University of Maryland where she earned a degree in Recreational Therapy, which led to a successful career as the Director of the Pascal Senior Center in Anne Arundel County. Her recreational talents were on full display once she began hosting a summer camp experience for all 17 grandchildren. Every summer each family of grandchildren spent a week at “Camp Granna”.  The week was filled with day trips to historic locations, crabbing, swimming, seining in the Severn River, eating German Potato Salad and crabs ladened with Old Bay seasoning, berry picking, pie baking and nightly poker games with Granna and Pop.

Her son, Matt, and I got engaged in 1979…wow, that was a little while ago!  Even before that day, Ann was kind and generous and treated me like a daughter. Once we were married, I thought of her as the World’s Best Mother-in-Law and to this day try to emulate her as I interact with the spouses and partners of my five adult children.  Ann gave advice only when asked but willingly shared her best recipes. Forty-three years later, I still have the old index card on which I scribbled as she dictated the recipe for her delicious German Potato Salad, and I still refer to it!  I know you must be thinking, “What after all this time she doesn’t know how to make it!”  The truth is, I just like to get it out.  I touch the food-stained index card. I hold it.  I remember Ann, and I am inspired.

Earlier this week, as a tribute to Ann’s heritage, my husband I made a delicious German-themed dinner: Grilled Sausage, Sweet n’ Sour Red Cabbage and Ann’s famous German Potato Salad, also known as GPS. As we prepared dinner, I texted my children, who grew up helping me make and eat their grandmother’s potato salad and asked them to share their favorite memories.  My daughter, Laura, remembered that I helped her and her twin sister, Beth, make GPS for Heritage Day during middle school. My eldest son, Tim, remembered making German Potato Salad with his grandmother but said, “My favorite memories of cooking with Granna are making blackberry pies!  Oh yeah, she also taught me how to fry soft shell crabs and make crab cakes.”  Matt, our third son, also recalled picking fresh berries just behind his grandmother’s house and making delicious pies in her cozy kitchen. He said, “My favorite German Potato Salad memory is you bringing it to every Wagner gathering and our house smelling delish from the bacon when you made the sauce!”  I must admit, as someone who married into the Wagner family, it was extremely validating to be asked to bring the GPS!

Making GPS isn’t difficult, and the ingredients aren’t fancy, but the ingredients must be combined just so. If done correctly, when the thick, gravy-like sauce is spooned over the perfectly boiled, soft but not mushy, potatoes and freshly chopped onions, the tangy sweet and sour flavors tickle every taste bud and linger on the tongue after each bite.  My mother-in-law always insisted that the potatoes be boiled with their skins on. I never knew why but I followed her advice, anyway.  It turns out, according to the Idaho Potato Commission -people who know their potatoes- “This keeps the nutrients inside the potato during the cooking process and adds a bit of flavor and texture to the finished product as well.”  Live and learn, I always say!

As the potatoes boiled, I made the sauce as Ann advised me more than forty years ago. I chopped and cooked three slices of bacon until crunchy crisp and then added the flour and brown sugar to the bacon grease. Once it was well blended, I added the water and vinegar, creating a thick, flavorful gravy. Ann’s original recipe recommends tasting the gravy and adding more, white sugar to taste.  Full disclosure: over the years, I’ve taken to adding less vinegar than Ann’s original recipe, but I never taste the gravy.  I always leave that task, or should I say privilege, to my husband.  He is, after all, the real deal when it comes to being a connoisseur of German Potato Salad!  Once the gravy was deemed perfect, to quote Ann, “I slipped the jackets off the potatoes.”   Back in the day, I loved that expression and still do!  To me, it perfectly captures Ann’s whimsical side. I layered the cubed potatoes and onions into a casserole and then, the piece de resistance, poured the sauce over the potatoes and tossed gently.

Cooking in honor of Ann, a woman I greatly admired and loved as a second mother, was bittersweet. Standing in the kitchen with my husband, cooking one of his mother’s favorite recipes, we remembered her encouraging ways, her gentle spirit, and her little sayings. We recalled her love for all things family, her passion for those less fortunate, her numerous volunteer efforts, the elder hostile trips she took with each of her 17 grandchildren and the trip we took with Ann and my mom to visit our eldest son who lived in Sweden.  It’s reassuring to know that though we can no longer wrap our arms around Ann, we can conjure her spirit, celebrate her German heritage, and reconnect with treasured memories through the recipes she grew up preparing with her mother and sharing with me and my children. That’s what I love about cooking…its power to connect people from diverse backgrounds and across generations!  As my husband and I raised our glasses to toast his mother, my second mother, I marveled at the possibility of someday eating delicious German Potato Salad prepared by my grandchildren in honor of their great grandmother!

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