To the outside world, Southern Californians look like fanatical salad nuts.
What can we say? The outside world is darn right. We are salad nuts. We’ve been salad nuts for a century or more. So there.
Just think of all the health-conscious businessmen who order sensible lunches of salad and iced tea. Think of all the women who lunch on salad and then dine on salad in the evening. We throw a sack of salad greens in the picnic basket almost the way we throw in potato chips.
Think about California cuisine. “The first time I went to Spago,” recalls restaurateur Fred Eric, “I was struck by the way everything came with salad. Beside it, on it, under it.”
The salad -- from the wild creations of high-flown restaurants to all the low-flying variations tossed in a bowl at home -- might be our most pervasive culinary contribution to the world. And the creativity hasn’t stopped, in part thanks to the spectacular influences from everywhere else, especially Asia.
But to understand the contemporary salad and what exactly California has accomplished, you have to go way back. In the beginning, we ate a lot of salad around here simply because we, unlike people in many other places, had fresh vegetables all year round. We were salad eaters 120 years ago because we could afford to be.
Back in those days, moving across the country was a major step that meant you might never see your family again, so newcomers tended to take to Los Angeles with the passion of converts. Local patriotism inspired countless salads using local ingredients such as citrus fruits, walnuts, avocados and olives. The first recipe for Waldorf salad was published in New York in 1896, and within 10 years we were cranking it up here with chopped oranges.
Our warm climate also has given us a natural taste for cold foods. We have this in common with the South, of course, and Southern immigrants brought in a taste for fruit salads we have never lost.
One last consequence of our fabled climate was a casual, outdoorsy style of life. Instead of formal dining, we went for the great outdoors, sunbathing, the open road. In 1905, when there was only one car to every 65 people in town, somebody already had titled a recipe “automobile salad.” It was just lettuce, celery, pickled olives and quartered tomatoes tossed with boiled dressing, but the name bespoke an eager, go-anywhere way of life.
Battle Creek, west
The last element was the diet reform movement, which had been gathering steam since the Civil War. In its original capital of Battle Creek, Mich. (in the grain-growing Midwest; coincidence?), John Harvey Kellogg had exalted cereals as the fount of health. When the health food idea came to California, though, the emphasis immediately shifted to the idea of eating vegetables, preferably raw, and it caught on in a big way here. Hollywood, in particular, proved highly susceptible to salad mania.
By the 1920s, the Southland was the world capital of exotic diets. You didn’t even have to be a diet crank to catch salad fever. My mother believed firmly in the goodness of salad and drummed into me the idea that you should have salad at least once a day.
Years later, still eating my salad a day, I learned the hard way that raw foods aren’t always the key to health -- at least where sanitation standards are dubious. When I got home after a year in the Middle East, my doctor told me I had picked up eight intestinal parasites.
“You’re a menagerie,” he said, with a disagreeable laugh.
Like any other food, salad has its fashions. At the turn of the century, mayonnaise was more popular than oil and vinegar dressing, and dairy-based boiled dressings outpolled both put together. There were countless boiled dressing recipes, but a typical one would be cream boiled with mustard and vinegar and a thickener such as eggs, perhaps enriched with some oil or butter.
Why boiled dressing? It suited the inherited northern European taste for cream sauces and custards. As Annabella Hill wrote in “Mrs. Hill’s Southern Practical Cookery and Receipt Book” (1870), “There is a prejudice with many against the use of olive oil.” Olives were proverbially an acquired taste in this country, and olive oil may have seemed alien to the table (it was associated with medicinal uses).
On top of that, a lot of imported oil was probably pretty old by the time it reached the customer. That was less of a problem here, because olive oil was a local product. Early in the century, the northern tip of the San Fernando Valley was so thickly planted with olive trees that it was given the quasi-Latin name Sylmar, meaning the sea (maris) of trees (sylvae).
Turn-of-the-century salad makers also were in love with stuffing things (tomatoes mostly) and assembling them in cutesy shapes (cutting up hard-boiled eggs to resemble water lilies).
Celery and gelatin still had the aura of luxury foods. In the 1920s and 1930s, the cult of aspics and gelatin salads would reach a screaming peak.
The ‘20s and ‘30s also were when Hollywood became a factor in how we ate. The stars were not too different from any other newcomers in town. They came from the same sorts of places. But with their wealth and celebrity, they discovered (and then publicized) several dishes, including the Caesar and Cobb salads.
Many stars confided favorite recipes to newspapers and magazines. The recipes sometimes look as if they came straight from the studio publicity department, such as a suspiciously fussy recipe attributed to the down-to-earth comic Jimmy Durante: steamed cauliflower florets alternating with tomatoes cut in flower shapes and topped with grated Parmesan.
Some sound embarrassingly real, though. Ann Harding, who usually played society dames suffering with high-toned dignity, contributed a recipe for “Hollywood salad dressing” to a 1932 celebrity recipe booklet (published by a Hollywood furniture store, which nobody thought unusual at the time). It was three cups of mayonnaise mixed with capers, minced vegetables (bell pepper, pimento, dill pickle, gherkins) ... and half a cup of caviar. Your guests, Harding assured readers in the very depth of the Depression, would be fascinated by the flavor.
The decisive moment in the history of American salad making came when the Saturday Evening Post published an article on salad by the leading food writer of the day, George Rector. He was a sly, clowning old sport fond of waggish exaggeration that veered close to the tall tale.
In the article titled “Salad Daze,” Rector claimed that simple green salad in vinaigrette was the summit of good taste. In an age when Americans were afraid of being humiliated by haughty French waiters, Rector was quick to push that button. He recommended “bullying” your waiter into bringing the makings for salad and mixing your own dressing at the table. “That not only gets you something fit to eat,” he wrote, “it also makes the waiter respect you as he never did before.”
His article also promoted the pepper mill, in the process starting the odd restaurant custom of offering you fresh pepper on your salad but not on anything else. It didn’t even mention boiled dressing, probably hastening its decline.
That nasty wooden bowl
Unfortunately, Rector spiced up the end of his story with an alluring myth that salad had to be mixed in an unpainted wooden bowl which could never be washed, on the ground that all the goodness of the salads made in it would “cure” the wood and turn it into “as distinguished an object as a thousand-year old Chinese shrine made of sandalwood” with “the patina of a Corinthian bronze.”
Actually, the main thing an unwashed wooden bowl would absorb from all the salads made in it was salad oil, which would sit there and oxidize. What Rector described as “the personality of a hundred-year-old brandy” was just a rancid stink, but it took Americans decades to face up to this.
In an already salad-minded town, this article hit like a bombshell. Suddenly oil and vinegar dressing was the only way to go, though we did stray from the path -- our idea of “French” dressing was typically enriched with ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. This was the sort of salad that predominated at postwar backyard barbecues.
A lot of salad fashions were yet to come: French, Mediterranean, Asian. And salads have continued to be an area of creativity. Here is what some Los Angeles chefs are doing with salad today.
Josie Le Balch of Josie’s in Santa Monica: “I like putting a lot of herbs in there, predominantly peppercress, tarragon, Italian parsley -- people think it’s a tough parsley, but the tender inner leaves are nice in salad.
“In winter and autumn I was doing salads with warmed vegetables. I’d heat up vinegar and oil, put in a roast vegetable -- turnips, beets, chestnuts -- and toss in some blanched Brussels sprout leaves. Then I’d toss in a handful of bitter greens like radicchio or endive just before putting it on the plate.”
Fred Eric, the chef and owner of Vida, Fred 62 and Airstream:
“Lately I’ve been making a lot of sauces that are a cross between vinaigrettes and purees. They get body from sauteed onions and the natural pectin in peppers, so they have a nice texture, but also fresh flavors.
“For instance, roasted yellow bell peppers and yellow tomatoes, put in a blender with sauteed onions and some vinegar. Then I add roasted scotch bonnet peppers and mount it with olive oil. It comes out really smooth, bright yellow, with a fresh, fruity flavor. Or you could use roasted fresh pasillas, they get a nice smoky flavor, in particular if you drizzle in a little bacon grease. I put this around a salad that has a lighter dressing, and it gets mixed into it.
“You can make any kind of vegetables Into a sort of salsa fresca and serve them on greens. The key is different ingredients.”
What’s next? Grilled salad? Italo-Asian fusion? Genetically engineered micro-greens to go with your micro-brew? Whatever it is, chances are we’ll still be the kings of rabbit food.