After 400,000 Pounds, Potato Salad Maker Hangs Up Peeler

STRAWBERRY POINT — After making more than 400,000 pounds of potato salad in the last 13 years, Marjorie Lewis has hung up her potato peeler.

“It was all right, but I like quilting better,” smiles Marjorie, who at 67 has Margie’s Handmade Quilts Etc. in Strawberry Point to make, finish and repair quilts.

When it comes to potato salad, the numbers speak for themselves.

Since May 23, 1999, when Margie started with Strawberry Foods in Strawberry Point and McElroy’s Food Market in Winthrop, she’s kept meticulous records.

The most for one week is 3,964 pounds in June, 2006.

The most for one year is 47,605 pounds in 2007.

In all, she’s made 411,080 pounds of potato salad which could fill a 10-foot deep swimming pool that’s 20 feet wide and 40 feet long. That’s enough potato salad to feed 1,644,320 people.

“Sometimes it was seven days a week, in the summer,” Margie says. “In the winter, it could be two days a week.”

Yep, potato salad says “summer” just as summer says “weddings” and “get-togethers.”

Last year, the stores catered exactly 100 weddings, says owner Gary McElroy.

The Winthrop store began in 1968 when his father moved from Independence. Gary bought the store in 1985 and added Strawberry Foods in 1998 when he purchased the former Jessen’s Super Valu.

“We bought this store to make potato salad,” says Gary McElroy. “We needed a big enough space and this store was available.”

Potato salad production began in 1991 in Winthrop when that store added a deli. Eleanor Moss of Lamont used her recipe and was later assisted by Arda Burrington for a couple of years until Margie assumed the role.

The potato salad, tweaked over the years, is sweet and juicy with just the right amount of onion.

“I don’t tell the recipe,” Margie says when asked.

“Some things, it’s fun to keep a secret,” Gary says.

“It’s his business,” Margie adds. “His recipe.”

Suffice to say it begins with large russet potatoes boiled 150 pounds at a time. They are peeled (it’s easier after they’re cooked), cut up, mixed with the other ingredients and put through a large commercial-grade food processor.

The upgrade in equipment has certainly helped the process, but it still involves lifting 50-pound sacks of potatoes and peeling them all.

“When you make over a ton a week, that finished me,” Margie says.

Mel Hogan, her successor, has realized the enormity of the task in just her first two weeks. As a cook in the Navy in the late 1970s, she says she never peeled so many potatoes.

Neither had Margie, who has held a variety of positions throughout her life including stints in the Army Reserves, as a personnel clerk at the Pentagon (“i assigned soldiers to Vietnam.”), with the police department at the Rock Island Arsenal and in production at Monona Wire. Making potato salad will be her last full-time job.

“What’s funny,” Margie adds. “We’ll have people say the potato salad at the Winthrop store tastes better. It’s all the same. Maybe the trip over there makes it taste better. We just laugh.”

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