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Railroad Cole Slaw

Picnic Recipes

It’s no secret that I don’t like mayonnaise. I never have. It is a peculiarity that has always made summer entertaining a bit of of a challenge.. I love picnics but often picnics and potlucks mean lots of salads drenched in dressing made with mayonnaise. It can be discouraging.

Some believe it can also be dangerous. Mayonnaise based salads are one of the foods we are most often warned to treat with particular care during picnic season. Believe me, I embrace that warning. Whether it is the mayonnaise itself that is the culprit or the conditions surrounding its use, mayonnaise has a reputation for hosting bacterial growth in warm atmospheric conditions.

For me that’s reason enough to collect recipes for salads that have an oil and vinegar based dressing, especially for hot weather social events. One of my favorites was given to me by my Father-in-Law. It was a favorite of his from my Mother-in-Law’s recipe box.

An Old Favorite

My husband comes from a large family. At one family gathering the conversation turned to memories of favorite foods. There were stories of holidays and special events, dinner guests, cleaning up after dinner and more. And of course there were stories about favorite recipes.

My Father-in-Law told the family, “Your mother used to make Railroad Cole Slaw. You’ll never get cole slaw like that anywhere nowadays. You could make it and it would last for weeks. Shred cabbage, I think you add an onion sliced thin. Then you put together vinegar, oil and dried mustard. Then you boil it. Pour it over the slaw and it sits out for 4 or 5 hours. After that you put it in the refrigerator and eat it out of the refrigerator.”

It sounded interesting. I asked for the recipe and he let me copy it from a card in my Mother-in-Law’s recipe box.

Railroad Slaw
From my Mother-in-Law's kitchen

1 head cabbage, grated
1 onion, sliced thin
½ cup sugar
¾ cup vinegar
¾ cup salad oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon dry mustard

Place half the grated cabbage in a a bowl and layer half the sliced onions on top.

Sprinkle sugar over onion. Layer other half grated cabbage and then other half sliced onions over this.

Bring to a boil, in a saucepan, the vinegar, oil, salt, celery seed and dry mustard. When mixture comes to a boil, pour over cabbage-onion mixture.

Do not refrigerate. (Due to modern sensibilities I suggest refrigerating it. The recipe will still work out just fine.)

Let slaw stand at room temperature rest in refrigerator four hours, then stir to dissolve sugar.

Add carrots or green pepper for color , if desired.

Store in the refrigerator.

Barbecue Food

I like Railroad Slaw. I remember eating it every summer when we would visit my husband’s family, often served with Starnes Barbecue. It was picnic food I could eat without looking picky and I was grateful.

Making it in my kitchen is somewhat nostalgic. I began this summer by making it for a Memorial Day barbecue. It is a good reliable recipe with a lot of fond associations for me. Still, I get the urge to tinker with it from time to time. The dressing contains a fairly heavy dose of sugar and oil and, like many salads, it seems to me the recipe calls for more dressing than the slaw actually needs. Sometimes I add more cabbage to the recipe the second day. Sometimes I supplement it with other vegetables.

A New Variation

This summer I saw an article about slimmer slaw in "Martha Stewart Living." I used it as an inspiration to update this favorite family cole slaw recipe by cutting down on the amount of sugar and oil as well as the overall quantity of the dressing. then I added red cabbage and carrots as well as a diced apple and some craisins for color and a fresh taste that transitions well into fall.

Slimmer Slaw
Inspired by a recipe in August 2009 "Martha Stewart Living"

¼ cup dried cranberries
1 head green cabbage, sliced to desired texture
2 cups purple cabbage, chopped
2 large carrots, grated
1 apple, cored and diced
¼ cup sugar
1/3 cup cider vinegar
¼ cup salad oil
1 teaspoon coarse salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon dry mustard

Soak the dried cranberries in enough boiling water to cover. Allow to stand for at least 15 minutes.

Combine the green cabbage, purple cabbage and carrots.

Place half the cabbage mixture in a a bowl and layer half the diced apple on top.

Sprinkle sugar over apples. Layer other half of the cabbage mixture and then other half of the diced apples over all.

Drain cranberries and scatter on top.

Bring to a boil, in a saucepan, the vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, celery seed and dry mustard. When mixture comes to a boil, pour over slaw mixture.


After several hours, stir to dissolve sugar and serve.

Store in the refrigerator.


Note: The recipe in "Martha Stewart Living" used honey instead of sugar in the recipe. It also added a minced jalapeno pepper (seeds, ribs and stem removed) to the dressing. I haven't tried it yet but I might. It sounds like an interesting variation!


Anonymous said...

Your salads look great! I might add carraway seeds to the top one. I find they are great in vinagrette style slaws.

Lisa said...

Great idea, Dana! Thanks.

grace said...

colorful and completely lovely rendidtion, lisa! i'm all for the mayo-less slaw, and if it's a bit lighter, that's all the better. i love the cranberries you snuck in there, too. :)

noble pig said...

Well I do love mayo but this sounds delish and safer at picnics!

Cathy said...

Looks like a delicious slaw with the addition of apple and cranberries. I think I would go for the jalapeno too.

pam said...

I love mayo, but I prefer my coleslaw with a vinegar base.

theUngourmet said...

Both recipes are terrific! I like the name Railroad Slaw! ;0)

Valerie Harrison (bellini) said...

This is perfect for summer picnics of which there will still be many.