Why does the word salad sound suspiciously like the word for salted in many languages? And where did salads come from, anyway? The answer takes us from ancient Rome to the high-class hotels of New York to Tijuana, Mexico.
Let’s talk about salads. From garden salad to pasta salad to taco salad to glorified rice (which is a real thing), the variety of dishes we apply this name to are vastly different from one another. A salad can be served at any point in a meal—as a first course, as a side dish, as a main entrée, or even as a dessert. The only requirement to be considered a salad is to have various food items mixed together, a sufficiently broad definition to classify a mix of tuna and mayonnaise in the same category as a mix of tropical fruits and jello.
The Roman Salad
The word salad came into English by way of the Old French salade, from Latin salata. The meaning of this word is what it sounds like–“salted.” In many Romance languages, the word for salad means salted (e.g., ensalada in Spanish). Additionally, German, Swedish, and Russian all borrowed the word salat into their language.
The original salads were herba salata, a popular Roman dish of leafy greens flavored with salt, olive oil, and vinegar. Similar dishes made from lettuce and other greens were widely enjoyed in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
In the second century CE, Hippocrates reinforced the practice of eating salads by claiming that eating raw vegetables before a meal helped clear the intestines and ensure healthy digestion. Others countered and said the salad should be eaten after the meal because the vinegar in the dressing would conflict with the flavor of the wine drunk during the meal.
Despite its popularity in the Roman Empire, salad was not consumed in every area of the world. In China, for example, salads were not appealing, and raw vegetables were considered to carry a risk of illness. Instead, vegetables were boiled or cooked in stir-fries.
During the Middle Ages, salads were a staple food for common people and royalty alike, composed of flowers, herbs, wild berries, and vegetables grown in household gardens. A salad was typically served as a starter for a meal.
In Renaissance Europe, salads still included mainly greens, but the seventeenth century “grand salad” for the first time included small bits of meat.
In the 1606 play Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare coined the phrase “salad days” to describe youthful inexperience—a synonym to being called a “greenie” when you’re new to a group or an activity. Cleopatra, regretting her youthful fling with Caesar, says
My salad days, / When I was green in judgment, cold in blood/To say as I said then
In 1699, British author, horticulturist, and vegetarian John Evelyn published a master work on salads called Acetaria: A Discourse on Sallets. Where many Britons saw meat and grains as the more desirable parts of a meal, Evelyn believed wholeheartedly in the benefits of eating salads and promoted a meatless diet. He also brought a spirit of experimentation and innovation to the kitchen and published many unique salad recipes.
Modern Salad and Social Stereotypes
According to Laura Shapiro, author of Perfection Salad, salads became a fixation of home cooks during the 1920s era of home economics and scientific cooking. She writes, “The object of scientific salad making was to subdue the raw greens until they bore as little resemblance as possible to their natural state. . . . This arduous approach to salad making became an identifying feature of cooking-school cookery and the signature of a refined household.” Because of the fussy and “dainty” nature they took on during this period, salads became associated with the women who typically prepared them. This led to a gendering of the salad, which had not been seen in those terms before. Additionally, salads were now seen as a food for the wealthy. Buying the ingredients for salad was only available to those who could afford both the vegetables and the means for storage and refrigeration.
In later decades, pressure to be thin and conform to societal beauty standards further reinforced the association of salads as “ladies’ food” in company with yogurt, chicken, and other “diet” foods. Salads took on a halo of health, even though heavier salads with creamy dressings and fried toppings may not have been the most nutritious choice. Still, the bare-bones salad made of little more than lettuce and chopped vegetables came to be seen as something you should eat but won’t enjoy, a code for “joyless healthy eating”—although marketers tried their best to convince women that they were supposed to love eating salad (remember Women Laughing Alone with Salad?). The food that was once favored in ancient Rome and enjoyed by both the upper classes and lower classes throughout time was now a symbol of deprivation. It was a symbol of never quite feeling satisfied, of never quite filling your own needs, of shrinking oneself down in order to please other people. The salad now comes with a higher price tag, but it is also stigmatized in part because it meant not feeling full or satisfied, in part because it was associated with women, and in part because it just didn’t seem like a complete meal to most Americans.
Salad is shedding its gender stereotypes and associations with deprivation and daintiness. A salad can be eaten by men and women, boys and girls—and hopefully, with the understanding that there is nothing inherent in salad that makes it gendered and with the understanding that something typically ascribed to women is not somehow inferior.
A salad can also be substantial and delicious, filled with a variety of ingredients and toppings, or it can accompany an entrée as a side. Due to both cultural pushback on the stereotypes of salads, and the innovations of chefs, salad restaurants are becoming more popular lunch destinations and offer a wide variety of options for salad lovers. You can have your salad and feel satisfied too!
On that note, let’s take a look at the origins of some common, delicious salads whose names you may never have questioned before.
Caesar Salad (Which Caesar?)
Despite the name, Caesar salad actually originated in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1924. The salad is named for the restaurateur, Caesar Cardini, who ran an Italian restaurant called Caesar’s. On the Fourth of July weekend, the restaurant was incredibly busy with American tourists, and Cardini improvised a new salad to feed hungry guests. Waiters made the salad tableside: garlic croutons, grated parmesan cheese, soft-boiled eggs, and a vinaigrette made with Italian olive oil and Worcestershire sauce were all placed atop pieces of romaine lettuce, which diners could eat with their hands.
In 1926, Cardini’s brother Alex, a former World War I pilot in the Italian Air Force, joined Caesar at the restaurant and modified his salad recipe. Alex’s version of the salad had the creamy Caesar dressing we know today flavored with anchovies. Alex’s “Aviator Salad,” as he called it, became more popular and was renamed “Caesar’s salad.” During the Prohibition era, Hollywood celebrities and ordinary Californians made the trip to Tijuana to dine at Caesar’s, equally excited for the Caesar’s salad as they were for the alcohol.
Soon, Caesar’s salad began to appear in restaurants across the U.S. and Europe. This may be attributed to the influence of Wallis Warfield Simpson, the mistress and eventually wife of Prince Edward VIII of Wales, former King of England. A frequent traveler to Tijuana and San Diego, she met the prince during her travels and also frequented Caesar’s. As duchess-to-be, she attempted to instruct European chefs on how to re-create her favorite salad. She also began to cut up the lettuce into smaller pieces rather than eating the salad with her fingers, exemplifying what she believed was the proper etiquette for a royal lady.
Cobb Salad (Where’s the Corn?)
Cobb salad was created in the 1930s at a Los Angeles restaurant called the Brown Derby, owned by Robert Howard Cobb. The most likely origin story holds that in 1937, Cobb fixed himself a late-night meal, using up anything and everything left in the kitchen to satisfy his hunger. He then mentioned his cobbled-together creation to Sid Gauman, a top Hollywood promoter, who requested to try the dish. Gauman loved it: the original mix of chopped avocado, celery, tomato, chives, watercress, hard-boiled eggs, chicken, bacon strips, and Roquefort cheese was a whole lot of variety and flavor all on one plate together.
With the backing of Hollywood-style promotion, the Cobb salad was on its way to international success. The modern Cobb typically contains chopped chicken, bacon, hard-boiled eggs, bleu cheese, tomatoes, avocado, and lettuce, though there are lots of variations.
Chef Salad (Who’s the Chef?)
Historians disagree on the exact origin of and ingredients that compose the chef salad. Many claim that the original chef salad emerged in seventeenth-century England as a dish called “salmagundi.” This was a mixture of chopped meat, anchovies, eggs, onions, and olive oil. Other historians claim that the chef salad was invented by chef Victor Seydoux at the Hotel Buffalo in New York. Guests liked the improvised salad made from meat, cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and hard-boiled eggs so much that it was added to the menu. When given the honor of naming the salad, Seydoux remarked “Well, it’s really a chef’s salad.” Seydoux later worked at the Ritz-Carlton, where chef Louis Diat propelled his salad to fame and served it to many well-to-do travelers. He added smoked ox tongue and French dressing, which are not found on your typical salad today. Chef salad is really more of a label for a variety of composed salads and can be adapted to whatever you have in the kitchen.
And that’s the beauty of salads—they lend themselves to imagination, improvisation, and innovation. From just a few ingredients to elaborate mixtures of exotic flavors, from appetizers to dessert, we’ve just scratched the surface of the dish that lends itself to endless variety and experimentation.
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