Green Salads


In America before the 20th century, salads mainly were used to dispose of leftovers.   Meat, chicken, and fish salads were popular, as were fruit and vegetable salads, often encased in aspic or gelatin.  Green salads became popular partly by serendipity, partly because of efforts by the medical community to improve the American diet, and partly because more Americans travelled abroad and were exposed to green salads in Europe.

Named by the French because variety was grown in the papal gardens in Rome, tall, upright, long-leaf romaine lettuce became the green of choice in one of the seminal salads of the 20th century, created by Caesar Cardini at his Tijuana restaurant, Caesar’s Place, located just south of the Mexican border from San Diego, in 1924.  (Romaine is also known as Cos lettuce because some of the earliest seeds came to Europe from Cos, a Greek island that was a center of lettuce growing.)

It was the Fourth of July weekend, the restaurant was packed, stores were closed and Caesar was running low on food.  He composed a salad of what little remained on hand in the kitchen: some romaine (not well known in the United States at that time), garlic croutons, cheese, eggs, olive oil and Worcestershire sauce (Since Caesar didn’t commit his recipe to paper, there’s debate about ingredients.  Did he actually use anchovies? Worcestershire sauce?).  He sent his waiters into the dining room with carts and bowls to prepare the salad tableside, hoping that a little drama would obscure the fact that he was serving a simple scrounged salad.  The waiters coated romaine leaves with salad dressing and arranged them on a plate in a ring, stem side out, so that diners could eat with their fingers.

As a footnote, Diana Kennedy offers another version of the story in her cookbook The Essential Cuisines of Mexico.  She reports that Caesar’s brother, Alex Cardini, started in the restaurant business in Italy at the age of ten and, by the end of his teens, had worked in a series of distinguished European restaurants.  Alex also was a decorated pilot in the Italian air force during the first World War.  He joined his brother in Tijuana in 1926 and, according to Diana, combined Caesar’s dressing with his own combination of salad ingredients to create what he called Aviator’s Salad in honor of the pilots at Rockwell Field Air Base in San Diego.  That salad later became known after the restaurant as Caesar’s salad.

Thanks to Prohibition, a drive to Tijuana became the rage for Californians who wished to escape to a land where liquor was legal:  Hollywood celebrities, including Clark Gable, Jean Harlow and W.C. Fields, drank legally and ate salad at Caesar’s restaurant.  Even the young Julia Child was Caesar’s guest.  She recounts that meeting in her cookbook From Julia Child’s Kitchen:  “One of my early remembrances of restaurant life was going to Tijuana in 1925 or 1926 with my parents, who were wildly excited that they should finally lunch at Caesar’s restaurant…..My parents, of course, ordered the salad.  Caesar himself rolled the big cart up to the table, tossed the romaine in a great wooden bowl, and I wish I could say I remembered his every move, but I don’t.  The only thing I see again clearly is the eggs.  I can see him break 2 eggs over that romaine and roll them in, the greens going all creamy as the eggs flowed over them.  Two eggs in a salad?  Two one minute coddled eggs?  And garlic flavored croutons, and grated Parmesan cheese?  It was a sensation of a salad from coast to coast, and there were even rumblings of  its success in Europe.”

That European success was likely courtesy of Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson, an American multiple divorcee who later became notorious as the mistress and ultimately wife of Prince Edward VIII of Wales, former King of England.  Mrs. Simpson frequented San Diego during the 1920s (by some reports she first met Prince Edward at the Hotel del Coronado there), and often crossed the border to dine at Caesars.  She became fond of the salad and demanded, some thought with excessive theatrics, that only Caesar prepare it for her tableside.  Travelling extensively in Europe, Mrs. Simpson introduced the salad to international chefs who were anxious to please the soon-to-be Duchess of Windsor.  She did make one change, however;  She instructed that the romaine be cut into smaller pieces so that it could be eaten with knife and fork, eliminating the indelicate need to use one’s fingers.

Later in the century, the medical community spurred the popularity of green salads.  In 1939 Irma Rombauer wrote, in her (now out of print) cookbook titled Streamlined Cooking, “The constant stress by scientists and physicians on the importance of uncooked vegetables and fruit in our everyday diet brings the salad into prominence.”  She described a salad of “iceberg, romaine, endive, watercress, etc.” and added that “…this is supposed to be like eating your way across a lawn.”

Americans who served in World War II or traveled abroad when the War was over returned home demanding a wider range of salads, and American farmers obliged by growing a wider range of greens.  More native choices appeared in supermarkets: crisphead lettuces, like iceberg (an old American variety), remained popular, but butterhead lettuces, like Boston or Bibb, which have soft leaves and form loose heads, (Bibb is also called limestone lettuce, because it was first developed in the limestone-rich soil of Kentucky in the 1880s by Major John Bibb)  and loose-leaf lettuces, like oak leaf, red leaf and green leaf, which are sometimes called cutting lettuces because you can cut the young leaves from growing plants as needed, also were common.  European greens were grown as well:  The Provencal salad blend called mesclun (mixture), originally composed of the tender young shoots of wild plants, but later grown from mixed seed, Belgian endive, watercress, arugula and many more became available.  Herbs like basil, chervil, chives, coriander, dill, mint and oregano were not far behind.

There are a few simple things to keep in mind when making a green salad:

o    Buy the best quality, freshest ingredients you can and remove and discard any damaged outer leaves.  Your greens will be served uncooked, so any blemishes or wilting will be obvious.  If you’re making a vinaigrette, buy the best olive oil and vinegar that you can afford.

o     Wash the greens thoroughly.  You don’t want to bite down on gritty greens.  And dry the greens thoroughly,  Any water clinging to the leaves will dilute the dressing.

o     The basic rule for making vinaigrette is three parts oil to one part vinegar or lemon juice.  While the dressing can be assembled in advance, greens should  be dressed at serving time, not before.

o     Use just enough dressing to coat the salad lightly.  A heavy coat of dressing will overpower the main ingredients.

o     As soon as you add the dressing, begin to toss.  If a salad is tossed thoroughly and the dressing is uniformly distributed, it will taste better.  But toss the greens gently to avoid bruising them.

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