My grandmother, Eda Peyton, was often described by my grandfather as "a good plain cook." Lawrence G. Peyton had his blind spots. He was a founding member of California's Condor Society, a renowned amateur ornithologist who was the last person to legally collect a condor egg--it was for the Museum of Science and Industry--spoke Spanish in his sleep and made a living as an orange grower for 60 years, while saddled with ne'er-do-well relatives. But he was wrong about his wife's cooking talent. Eda Peyton had her limitations. She could never splurge on pricey ingredients; the Depression was still too vivid for her. I still remember her Christmas cards, which came unsigned with inserted slips of paper bearing their names, so that next year you could reuse them. She saved string, rubber bands and paper bags until they nearly filled a spare room. Her cooking was thrifty and many of her recipes were clipped from The Fillmore Herald (circulation 1,286), but what she did with what she had produced moments of genius.
She made a kind of baked hamburger with onion and pimento that I have never been able to duplicate. No matter how crusty the exterior, the dish was always moist, tender and as flavorful as the best meatloaf. She canned a hamburger relish, which I can still taste, that won blue ribbons every year at the Ventura County Fair. The last jar was finished 12 years ago, and not a month goes by that I don't mourn its passing. She was able to make chayote palatable. Chayote is the world's worst squash. It was a vegetable she admired because it required no water and no care. Our chayote vine took over the walnut tree in the backyard and dangled what looked like pale-green brains 30 feet above. They were so tough that the drop never even bruised them. Of course her cooking method--a stick of butter, green pepper, onion and a dash of nutmeg to start--would have made cardboard palatable. And then there was her masterwork: Grandma Peyton's salad.
When you grow oranges, you use them for more than juice. She used orange sections in jello, their juice in barbecue sauce, on yams and as the key ingredient in her salad dressing. The combination and preparation of ingredients for this salad goes against several of my deepest grains. First of all, this salad calls for iceberg lettuce. Then, the lettuce is cut, not torn. Lastly, there is no garlic involved and generally I use more garlic than is employed by the entire population of Transylvania. Simply, what happens is this: you cut a half-head of washed iceberg lettuce, slice three or four green onions, then make the dressing.
The dressing is orange juice, vegetable oil, apple-cider vinegar and salt. Simple. Addictive. It always works, but it works best with Valencia oranges. And the world's finest Valencia oranges are grown in California, arguably the best of these coming from Fillmore, Calif. (I have eaten Valencias in Valencia, Spain, and they do not compare.)
Don't mess with the recipe. It's perfect. When my grandmother returned from her first and only visit to France, she tried making the dressing with olive oil. It was a predictable disaster. My Aunt Doris--who is otherwise admirable--has begun adding garlic to this recipe. We will speak no more of that. She spent way too much time on the East Coast.
2/3 cup California Valencia orange juice, freshly squeezed
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 tablespoons apple-cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 head of iceberg lettuce
3 green onions
Combine orange juice, vegetable oil, apple-cider vinegar and salt in a one-pint mason jar. Shake vigorously. Set aside. Cut head of lettuce in half, rinse and drain, then cut into small wedges. Thinly slice three entire green onions. Mix together and toss with dressing. Serve immediately.