I have borne witness to an awful lot of handwringing lately. Handwringing about the fighting in Gaza and the fact that a mob of Russian separatists can lay their mitts on enough firepower to shoot a commercial airliner out of the sky and about the fact that it is a good 10 degrees warmer here than usual (fossil fuels, hello) and about an Ebola outbreak moving faster than the speed of human intervention and about the fact that the world—the entire world—cannot seem to rescue nearly 200 beautiful school girls from a band of thugs. And those are just the things I am handwringing—and lamenting and praying—about every day. But the handwringing I am actually puzzled by is the handwringing about, yes, potato salad.
Over the past year, I have had the chance to learn a good deal about crowdfunding. In fact I love crowdfunding. I think it is an opportunity for us—the citizens (and by that I don’t mean citizens who are anointed by legal status but citizens inducted by heart and soul and action)—to say “Yes, in my back yard. Please.” It is a chance for us to express preferences and push creative projects. It is an amazing thing how $5 means a lot more to the powers-that-be than a signature on a petition.
But for the last few weeks, there has been drama in the crowdfunding world. In case you haven’t heard, a crazy character named Zack Danger Brown from Columbus, Ohio, persuaded nearly 7,000 citizens of the internet to give him $55,492 to make potato salad. He was asking for $10. (Favorite fact: His middle name is Danger. Seriously.) But in the civic crowdfunding world, this kicked off a whole lot of the aforementioned hand-wringing– “How can someone raise $55,000 for potato salad when there are [suffering children, homeless dogs, under-appreciated marmots]. Few of the campaigns to address these injustices raise anywhere near $55,000. What is wrong with people? Seriously, potato salad? Think of the children, the dogs, the marmots!” It is a symbol of all that is wrong with America.
Of course, they’re right. But truth be told I find myself loving Zack and his potato salad, even if I’m afraid to say it in hand-wringing company. Yes, I love the campaign for its pitch-perfect irony. (“Will it change the world?” Head nod. “Probably.”) And I love it because it makes fun of Kickstarter and its rewards and its ducktailed hipsterness. And who doesn’t love that?
But really that’s more like a crush. I love it because it invites us to something real, to something human. I love it because its basic impulse is one of simplicity and nostalgia. It invokes grandmothers and church potlucks and bacon bits. It is, as I keep telling people, a subversion of modernity. It is the human hand versus the machine, recalling the central anxiety of the industrial and post-industrial age.
But I also think it runs deeper than that. At the end of the day, even with all our crowd-funded empowerment, we suspect we can’t do a thing about neighbors bombing the living daylights out of each other or the suffering of children and animals. We fear it’s too late for the planet and for the cherished girls in the Nigerian forest. We fear Ebola could wipe out entire continents while we watch in horror.
But we are pretty certain we can make potato salad. Or at least that Zack Danger Brown can. Or that he can try to make it with a huge smile on his face, and he can invite us to join in. We find solace in the fact that we can sustain one another with picnic food and laughter. We are comforted by the simplicity, the ease, the hospitality. We are relieved that we still locate sources of pleasure and generosity. So, it is for those reasons that I love Zack Danger Brown, and it is for those reasons I can actually pause—for a moment—and stop wringing my hands.
p.s. – But here’s another confession: I loathe mayonnaise potato salad. I prefer a vinaigrette. My family, not that into potato salad either way. But they’ll tolerate it once a year in honor of the birth of the nation. So here’s the recipe for my Independence Day Potato Salad:
Independence Day Potato Salad
1 sweet onion
4 cloves of garlic
2 small handfuls of tender green beans
8-10 new potatoes
a generous scoop of cherry tomatoes
½ cup of olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
¼ cup of balsamic vinegar
Basil, oregano, salt & pepper to taste
Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil
Dice potatoes and boil until soft
Meanwhile, snip green beans and blanch for 2 minutes
In a splash of olive oil, cook onions until clear and soft
Add garlic and beans to onions;; sautee until gold but not brown
Drain potatoes and add to garlic/onion/bean mixture
Make vinaigrette with remaining olive oil, lemon, vinegar, and spices
Toss all ingredients in a bowl with fresh cherry tomatoes
Serve chilled or at room temperature