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6 march 2017

Galen, says Judith Weinraub in her global history of salad, believed that lettuce was the perfect vegetable, capable of righting your system of humors when it got out of whack. Every once in a while the right salad comes along when you're in a state of stodge-satiety or dehydration and sets your world straight in a marvelously Galenic manner. At other times, though, a bowl of salad can be a chore. Some glorious dish of baked pasta awaits, all umami and fat; but this little collection of bland, dry leaves looks up at you accusingly as if to say "there's a price for every human pleasure, buddy."

Galen might have been appalled at some of the things Americans call "salad." We will call a vast bowl full of meat and cheese and cream a "salad" if there's a leaf or two on the bottom. But such hearty salads actually have a long tradition in the West, as Weinraub shows: anything chopped in a bowl and eaten cold bears a family resemblance to classic leafy salads. Mounds of meats, pickles, and vegetables constituted "salmagundi," an English tradition that caught on at an early date in the United States. Salads were defined for many an early food writer by the dressing. Oil and vinegar are of prehistoric provenance, and the word "salad" actually comes from Latin sal, "salt," the essential flavoring. There's Biblical warrant in Job 6:6, when the aggrieved patriarch inquires "Can that which is unsavoury be eaten without salt?"

So maybe a heavy, salty salad is historically the norm and a few puny leaves the exception. Weinraub notes, though, that fresh green salads may be underrepresented in canonical cookbooks simply because they need no recipe. There is also a social-class factor in the mix. The plainest salads have surely always been working-class, even subsistence, foods. When times are tough, people will forage greens; when they're a little better, they'll grow them in kitchen gardens. Many foraged greens must be cooked, of course: nettle makes a delicious stewed dish but is untouchable raw. Still, basic salads may not have registered in culinary history because nobody was interested in the people eating them.

Salad dressings remained oil-and-acid based, with a little salt, pepper, or other increasingly common spices, for many centuries. Then the advent of Hellman's mayonnaise made salad a creamy delight. It also allowed for what Weinraub calls "salad siblings": fruits, meats, fish, and other chopped items in more-or-less-elaborate mayonnaise, ready to fill sandwiches.

Bagged, washed greens are a great 21st-century invention. Weinraub warns that the industrial processes involved in creating those handy bags can be hazardous to health and the environment; but then, so can a lot of agribusiness practices. We have to eat something, and unless you want to buy acres of backyard and convert them to lettuce and spinach, I suggest just opening one of those ubiquitous bags, many of which come with dressing these days. For years, living with people who detested soggy salads, I washed greens and then dried them in a "salad spinner," a protracted activity that made salad doubly depressing. Now I can limit salad cookery to opening a plastic bag.

I was a little disappointed in the section of recipes at the end of Salad, till I remembered that salads don't need recipes. Weinraub includes some anyway, for chef's, Cobb, Waldorf, and Greek salads. (Though as to Waldorf, the best way to remember the ingredients is to listen to the American in Fawlty Towers: "Celery, apples, walnuts, grapes!") Weinraub's text includes several fetchingly-described Turkish and Spanish salads. Her appendix lists other standard salads, where a mere description serves as recipe: Niçoise, with green beans and tuna; Lyonnaise with bacon and eggs. The one time I visited Geneva I ate salade genevoise with sausage and potatoes, a dish that is not wholly Googlable. Aside from a few musts, all these "-oise" salads offer scope for improvisation.

Salad may suit the artistic temperament. In Nancy Scott's biography of Georgia O'Keeffe, I read about her first trip to meet Alfred Steiglitz's family:

Stieglitz's younger, diva sister Selma, found O'Keeffe's manner off-putting (and the feeling was mutual) because the artist dared to prepare her own salad with fresh greens and refused to stay at table to eat heavier fare. (87)
My current favorite salad came out of some magazine or other and has been subjected to my own influences (as usual in the direction of simplicity).

Broccoli/Chickpea/Lemon Salad

Steam broccoli for three minutes; add chickpeas and steam for a minute more. Whisk together other ingredients and pour over.

Weinraub, Judith. Salad: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2016.