Salad Days

This man did not create the Caesar salad (Le Louvre, Paris -- photo by Herve Lewandowski)

For some reason, I was under the impression that salad was a relatively recent development in the history of food.  My assumption was that until the 18th century, what people ate fell into one of three categories:  1) bread, 2) meat, 3) other.  That last category, I thought, included porridge and fingernails and whatever else found its way into one’s mouth.

Then I discovered that Shakespeare made reference to salad way back in 1607:  “My salad days/When I was green in judgment” is a line from Antony and Cleopatra.  Further investigation revealed that not only did salads exist in Shakespeare’s time, his mention of them in this play was not an anachronism, like having a centurion glance at his wristwatch and say “Would you look at the time…”  The ancient Romans, probably including Mark Antony, ate salad.

It is not true, however, that Julius Caesar invented the Caesar salad.  Neither did Augustus or Tiberius or any of the other imperial Caesars.

There are conflicting opinions about who initially threw together romaine lettuce, croutons, parmesan cheese, egg and Worcestershire sauce.  Most salad authorities narrow it down to a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, called… go ahead, take a guess.  Right.

It was owned by a restaurateur named Caesar Cardini, who along with his brothers, also owned a place in San Diego.  Caesar’s Restaurant in Tijuana was quite popular with Americans during the 1920s because it was just on the other side of the border — where Prohibition didn’t apply.

According to Mr. Cardini’s daughter, Caesar created his eponymous salad one busy weekend in 1924 when a lot of the Hollywood crowd had come to town.  (As you may have heard, some people in the entertainment industry have been known to drink a little.)  Cardini’s cupboard was getting bare, so he got creative with what he had on hand and Caesar salad was the result.

It was a hit, and its popularity spread back to the U.S. side of the border and eventually worldwide.  As a result, almost everyone who worked in Caesar’s Restaurant during the 1920s later tried to take credit for it, including Caesar’s brother Alex, a couple of cooks, and probably the dishwasher.  The reason that I favor the Caesar Cardini version is that his recipe did not use anchovies.  I hate anchovies.

While we’re clearing up misconceptions about salads, let me mention that coleslaw was not named for Old King Cole.  That cabbage-and-mayonnaise concoction has been around since the 18th century, and is derived from two Dutch words, “kool” and “sla”.  Not surprisingly, “kool” means cabbage, and “sla” means salad.  Seriously.

It had nothing to do with cold slaw or warm slaw, which you sometimes see on menus in the midwestern U.S.  Nope, it’s from the Dutch, and you’ll recall that a lot of Dutch immigrants settled along the Hudson River, where they grew cabbage and made koolsla.

Oh, and I guess I don’t have to tell you — Mr. Potato Head did not invent potato salad.

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6 responses to “Salad Days

  1. If Mr. Potato Head had invented Potato salad he wouldn’t be around to take credit for it.

    • True. By the way, you and I have had our share of Jello salad over the years, which I found classified on one website as a “dessert salad”. Personally, I don’t find it particularly satisfying as a salad or a dessert. But that’s just me.

  2. Any word on whether the crouton was invented on purpose? Did Caesar have a mad scientist moment as he was creating his salad when he said, “Chop up that stale bread and throw it on there, too”. I love croutons, but I’ve gotta think that their originator got some weird looks from people who could afford fresh bread.

    • The origin of the crouton is obscure, but seems to have been a way to use anything that was remotely edible. The word is derived from a French word meaning “crust”, and first showed up in English in 1806.

      It had been the practice for more than a century to put croutons in soup and fish stews, so that’s probably why Mr. Cardini had some in his restaurant that day when he whipped up that first Caesar Salad. Let me anticipate your next question: No, I have no idea who Mrs. Cubbison is.

  3. I had heard parts of the stories of the origin of different salads before, so thanks for putting it all together. (I may just do a little salad making tonight.) Biggest news was hearing that some people in the entertainment industry have been known to drink a little.

  4. Great post! Reminds me of a former co-worker who famously hated vegetables. She came to work one day and announced: “I finally found a vegetable I like: Caesar salad!” We tried to convince her that it didn’t count, but were unsuccessful.

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