KP Cooks

Even Dolly Parton’s Coleslaw is Larger Than Life

A go-to coleslaw is a grill-season essential, even if you don’t like coleslaw


Dolly Parton and I go way back. 

In the earlier 1970s, my siblings and cousins and I got ferried around a lot by one of our slightly older cousins in a sky blue Plymouth Valiant, the one with the gear shift on the dash. The car had been our grandmother’s but after she died it got passed around the family for a few years. I don’t know why, maybe they couldn’t decide who should get it or maybe no one wanted it. But it was useful for hauling half a dozen of us around at a time, so our 20-something cousin got stuck with it and us.

The only improvement he made to it was adding an 8-track tape player. 

For those who have forgotten, or never knew, an 8-track cassette was an awkward plastic box about the size of three decks of cards that contained a single tape on a continuous loop with songs on parallel tracks. When the tape reached the end of a track, sometimes mid-song, the player would emit a stentorian “thunk” as the heads switched to the next track, indefinitely. Seriously, it would keep doing that until someone turned the thing off or yanked the cassette to toss out a window.

That happened many times in the Valiant. Eventually we were down to just three 8-track tapes: Boston, Frank Sinatra, and Dolly Parton.

Whenever I could wrestle my way into the middle front seat, and thus in control of the 8-track player, it was Dolly Parton all the time. I didn’t like her music, but my siblings positively despised it, and I took enormous pleasure in punishing them for their slights against me whenever I could.

But a weird thing happened. After listening interminably to the same tape over and over again for hours and days and years, even with that big “thunk” right in the middle of “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy,” I started to like Dolly Parton. And when we got old enough to drive, the trouble really started because we all wanted that Valiant. The assorted parents must have seen the looming danger because one day it was just gone, unceremoniously sold off for a couple hundred dollars — with the 8-track player and those three tapes.

So, I’ve always had a fondness for Dolly, even if it was just because she helped me torture my family when I needed to most, and thus give me some form of agency — which is what she’s all about. (“You know I sure am a feminist,” she said on Johnny Carson one night in the ’70s. “I burned my bra, and it took three days for the fire department to put it out!”)

Of course, she has also become an American Hero Adored By All, and rightly so, but I’ve never been moved to actually buy any of her 5,000 songs. No need since I’ve got those 12 from that 8-track seared in memory. Still, when her name pops up I pay attention out of gratitude.

I thought I was the only one who did in our family until one of the remaining cousins I still speak to gave me a copy of “Dollywood Presents: Tennessee Mountain Home Cooking” (1989). It was meant to be a joke, but there’s some decent stuff in it. I usually grab and change any recipe I find until I’ve convinced myself and anyone who will listen that it’s my own creation, but in this case I will admit that not even I could improve on the work of Dolly Parton.

And I don’t even like coleslaw.

Dolly Parton Coleslaw

1 green cabbage, about 2 pounds sliced thin
1 medium onion, minced
1 carrot, diced or grated
1 red bell pepper, diced
¼ cup sweet pickle juice. I prefer Claussen or Mount Olive sweet, pickled jalapeños
¼ cup white vinegar

1 tablespoon dill pickles, minced or 1 tablespoon pickle relish: again, Claussen or Mount Olive jalapeños
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons sugar
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon Kosher salt, less if using fine

Chop and generously salt the cabbage in a colander or similar. Give it a squeeze after 15 minutes or more to remove as much moisture as possible. Meanwhile prep the other veggies. 

Mix dressing in a separate bowl. I prefer to let it chill while the cabbage is draining to develop character and add whatever I feel is missing. That can range from more pickle to celery or more exotic salts to cayenne, depending on my mood and guest list.  

Toss it all together and serve immediately. You can cover and chill, but prepare to drain any sogginess that may develop. Dolly does sappy, not soggy.