Salad Days of Summer
Discover the origins of some of America’s most beloved salads.
The long days of summer are here, and with it comes hot steamy weather and a yearning to cool off. Heavy meals give way to lighter ones and salads with all their fixings rule the day. Sink your teeth into a crisp Caesar Salad or taste the tang of cool coleslaw or chunky Cobb salad. Whatever your preference, salad makes the perfect main course or accompaniment to your favorite meals. Here, we’ll explore some of the classics with histories most people may not know.
Hail Caesar for what could be America’s top salad choice. The origin of Caeser salad began in of all places, Tijuana, Mexico. Credited with its creation was Caesar Cardini, an Italian chef who lived in San Diego, California, and worked at his restaurant in Tijuana to avoid U.S. prohibition restrictions. His daughter recounted that the salad was invented on July 4th, 1924, when there was a big rush for food and supplies ran low. Using what he had, Cardini wowed his guests by preparing and serving the salad tableside. Julia Child wrote that she was at the restaurant and ate the salad as a child in the 1920s.
The original recipe did not include anchovies until Caesar’s brother Alex, a pilot, added it in the dressing, which gives its distinctive zing we know today. The brother’s version was called Aviator’s salad and later was renamed as Caesar’s salad. The salad was served with whole romaine lettuce leaves with stems facing outward in a circle and was to be eaten as finger food. The original dressing included coddled eggs, garlic, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce, Parmesan cheese, and croutons.
Legend has it that Wallace Simpson, future wife of Prince Edward VIII of Wales and former King of England, ordered her salad cut into bite-size pieces so that she may eat it with a fork. She has been credited with introducing Caesar salad to the European community. Caesar salad was so popular that in 1953, the International Society of Epicure proclaimed it to be “the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years.”
Child recalls Cardini making the salad tableside in her book Julia Child’s Kitchen, “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?”
Here’s a tip: add incredible flavor to your Caesar salad by slicing one garlic clove in half and rubbing the cut sides inside a preferably wooded salad bowl. For something a little different, try Laurie Wolf’s Caesar salad recipe.
Caesar Cardini’s “The Original Caesar Dressing” can be purchased in supermarkets nationwide along with a variety of other dressings under the Cardini’s label. The original Caesar’s bar and restaurant opened in 1923 in an alley and, in 1932, was relocated to its current hotel restaurant location. Armenui Avakian now owns Caesar’s restaurant, and the cuisine is handled by Javier Plascencia, a leading Baja Med chef, who still serves up the original Caesar salad.
In 1893, a benefit concert honoring St. Mary’s Hospital for Children was held at the inauguration of the Waldorf (later named Waldorf Astoria) hotel in New York City. A simple salad made up of only four ingredients was served to 1,500 guests. The salad was a smashing success and turned into a timeless American staple we call Waldorf salad.
The maître d’hôtel, Oscar Tschirky, a quiet Swiss immigrant, known as “Oscar of the Waldorf,” was credited with creating the dish. He worked at the hotel from its inauguration in 1893 until he retired in 1943. Previous to working at the Waldorf, Oscar was maître d’hôtel of Delmonico’s Restaurant.
Although never a chef, Oscar leveraged his association with food and published a large cookbook in 1876, The Cook Book by Oscar of the Waldorf, where he gives this recipe for his famous salad:
Waldorf salad – Peel two raw apples and cut them into small pieces, say about half an inch square, also cut some celery the same way, and mix it with the apple. Be very careful not to let any seeds of the apples be mixed with it. The salad must be dressed with a good mayonnaise.
Over time, walnuts or pecans, grapes, and raisins eventually made their way into the recipe, which we enjoy today. Modern versions include the addition of chicken, turkey, lemon or orange zest, and using seasoned mayonnaise. Substituting celery with cauliflower creates a variation called “emerald salad.”
What is fried chicken or barbecue ribs without coleslaw? It’s practically a sin not to add this cool, crunchy salad as a side dish or serve it up at family cookouts. But what is the origin of this simple cabbage dish that has become standard fare in nearly every American household? It seems the early Roman empire concocted a mix of cabbage with vinegar, spices, and eggs. But it was the Dutch who grew cabbage in their newly founded state of New York and created koolsla, which translates as cabbage salad or coleslaw.
A recipe for coleslaw appeared in the 1770 published book The Sensible Cook: Dutch Foodways in the Old and New World. The author attributes his landlady for the recipe that consisted of thinly cut strips of cabbage with melted butter, oil, and vinegar. The mayonnaise version we enjoy today followed soon after.
There are many variations of this basic dish found across the globe. Germany marinates shredded cabbage with oil and vinegar while Italy adds cooked ham and julienne peppers. In the United Kingdom, salad cream is used with carrots often added as well as grated cheddar cheese, nuts, and raisins. Poland shreds their cabbage with onions, carrots, and parsley or dill and seasons with salt, pepper, sugar, oil, and vinegar. A Russian version mixes cabbage, carrots, apples, cranberries, and other fruits with oil and vinegar, often marinating the cabbage first. Cilantro, hot peppers, and rice wine vinegar are added to Asian versions. In the United States, finely chopped or shredded cabbage mixed with buttermilk or mayonnaise is the most common form. Dairy-free with vinegar or mustard as well as regional specialties like red slaw made with ketchup are also favorites.
In 1937, Bob Cobb, co-owner of the Brown Derby restaurant chain, was at the Hollywood location and grew hungry late one night. Looking for leftovers in his large kitchen refrigerator, he found some salad greens, roasted chicken, hard-boiled eggs, avocados, tomatoes, and Roquefort cheese. Chopping it all up, Cobb included some crisp bacon his line cook had prepared and tossed the mixture with the restaurant’s renowned house-made French dressing. He created and ate the first Cobb salad, as the legend goes. But there is some controversy as to whether it was his executive chef who actually created the salad and named it after Cobb.
The Cobb salad was served to guests and grew in popularity, eventually becoming a top menu item. Over four million Cobb salads were served before the restaurant shut its doors in 1985. Here is the recipe for the original Brown Derby’s Cobb salad:
1/2 head iceberg lettuce, chopped
1/2 bunch watercress, chopped
1 small bunch chicory (endive), chopped
1/2 head romaine, chopped
2 medium tomatoes, peeled and diced
1 avocado, diced
2 chicken breasts, boiled, chilled and diced
6 strips crisp bacon, finely chopped
3 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
2 tbs chopped chives
1/2 cup crumbled imported Roquefort cheese
1 cup Brown Derby Old-Fashioned French Dressing (recipe follows)
Place the chopped greens on a platter and arrange the diced chicken, tomatoes, and avocado over the top. Sprinkle the chopped bacon, eggs, chives, and cheese over the top. Just before serving, toss the salad thoroughly with the dressing. Serves 4 to 6.
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp sugar
1-1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
3/4 tsp English mustard
1 small clove garlic, peeled and chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup salad (vegetable) oil
Add all ingredients except the oils into a container and shake to blend. Then add olive and salad oils and mix well again. Chill. Shake before serving.
A Coined Expression
Speaking of origins, “salad days” is an expression referring to youthfulness or impetuous inexperience associated with youth. Coined by William Shakespeare, it was used in the play Antony and Cleopatra in 1606. In the play, Cleopatra mentioned her salad days were when she was “green in judgment, cold in blood,” in describing her inexperience with love. The connection between salad days and plated greens could be Cleopatra’s references to “green” and “cold” that are characteristic of salad. But it can also be implied that with inexperience, one could not afford to eat meat, and thus salad became the daily fare.