Some forms of salad have been consumed for centuries, originally made mostly of cabbage and root vegetables, flavored with vinegar, oils and herbs. Ancient Greeks believed that raw green vegetables promoted good digestion, and the Romans agreed. Early recordings of lettuce appeared back in the 6th century B.C. although it bore little resemblance to our current varieties.
Salads have come a long way since the pedestrian lettuce, Tomato and cucumber version. Today there is no end to the hundreds of varieties, ingredients and dressings available to our salad-crazed nation. In the 1920s, they hit the big time, as restaurant chefs created Caesar, Chef, Cobb and fruit salads. Canned veggies and fruits became more available and were tossed into the mix, allowing Americans to eat salads year ’round. Simple vinegar and oil made room for bottled dressings and mayo, paving the way for “bound salads.” Sounds a little kinky, but this category includes some of our favorites: tuna salad, chicken salad, egg salad, ham salad, shrimp and crab salad. The chicken came first, showing up in mid-1800s cookbooks, tuna much later with the advent of canned tuna. In the late 1930s, Spam made ham salad easy, and egg salad was a natural. With the introduction of Jello gelatin, molded salads took their colorful place at any luncheon.
Restauranteur Robert Cobb created the salad that bears his name at his Brown Derby restaurant in Hollywood; chef salad debuted at the Ritz Carlton in New York and originally included sliced ox tongue along with ham and Cheese. (Mercifully, in later years, turkey or chicken replaced the ox tongue.) In Hollywood’s early days, Caesar salad was embraced by the stars, who happily munched on this trendy salad at some of their favorite restaurants. The creator, Caesar Cardini, eventually bottled and sold his trademark dressing in the Los Angeles area. A favorite restaurant in Chicago, the Blackhawk, featured their signature “spinning salad bowl” along with every entree on the menu, served tableside.
French chefs made vinaigrette dressing with oil, herbs, chopped shallots, and paprika, throughout the 1800s.Those especially adventurous added Tomato sauce, which became the foundation for classic French dressing. Kraft Foods, in 1939, introduced their popular version, orange in color. Boomers remember it drizzled over iceberg lettuce. Miracle Whip appeared around the same time, labeled salad dressing but primarily used to hold together chopped meat, chicken or eggs for a tasty sandwich filling. In the 1920’s, Green Goddess dressing was created at a San Francisco restaurant in honor of a play by the same name. (Good thing Death of a Salesman didn’t debut that same year.)
Colonial America grew lettuce in their home gardens, along with cabbage, beans and root vegetables. A delicate seasonal food, it was enjoyed in summer only and not available year ’round until the 20th century, when California grew and shipped head lettuce nationwide. No question foodie president Thomas Jefferson experimented with a number of varieties which were served daily to his family and dinner guests, with vinaigrette dressing or a sprinkling of herbs and mayonnaise (his chef was French-trained).
As Americans developed more sophisticated tastes, traditional iceberg lettuce took a backseat to Romaine, arugula, endive, radicchio and field greens. Originally these varieties were considered greens for the elite due to price and perishability. Of late, retro salads are showing up with quarters of iceberg lettuce and dressing. For Boomers who grew up on the stuff, it harkens back to the 50s along with Spam salad, meatloaf, canned fruit cocktail and Popsicles.
With Americans’ love for pasta, it was only a matter of time before pasta salad emerged, first appearing as simple macaroni salad, giving way to more sophisticated versions and add-ins.
European immigrants brought their potato salad recipes to America, both cold and hot, which utilized the inexpensive and easy-to-grow potato as a hearty base. Europe was serving up potato salad as early as the 1600s, usually mixed with vinegar, oil and bacon, the forerunner of German potato salad, served hot. Warmer climates enjoyed potatoes cold with cream and vegetables.The French, no slouches in the cuisine department, took it one step further, adding mayonnaise, herbs and mustard, Dijon of course. (No self-respecting Frenchman would even think of using yellow mustard as Americans do.)
Since the 1970s, when salad bars became de rigueur, the lowly salad has taken center stage, no longer an afterthought alongside a main course. Supermarkets feature prepackaged lettuce and salad fixings, boxed pasta salad mix and rows of greens and colorful vegetables, all waiting to be dressed up. No longer considered “rabbit food,” we can indulge almost anywhere. So belly up to the bar and dig in.