A History of the American Salad

salad Americans are forever searching for an identity. In our toys, our clothes, our literature, our cars, and our foods, we define ourselves and our times with a distinctive flavor as though out of compulsion to continuously remake ourselves. Americans like new things, embrace them to the point of fanaticism. In all areas of popular culture, we can trace the spirit of the times, even in as narrow a subject as our salads, a small sociological window into the history of American culture.

A salad, as defined by The Dictionary of American Food and Drink, is "A dish of leafy green vegetables dressed with various seasonings, sauces, and other vegetables or fruits." That definition hardly suffices to describe a dish of such innumerable variations, especially today when a salad is likely to contain nothing green and leafy.

The salad has been around since ancient times, named for the Latin for salt (sal), with which the greens were seasoned before Good Seasons. As an American food, salads were relatively unimportant until the back to nature movement of the nineteen sixties. This was a meat and potatoes nation well through the T-bone-on-the-grill fifties.

The American salad in the first half of the twentieth century usually meant iceberg lettuce and, when summer vegetables were not available, often included fruit such as apples, raisins, and oranges. Dressings were either oil and vinegar (served in two cruets on a checkered tablecloth) or mayonnaise and/or sour cream based, including Thousand Island and French.

One of the most important landmarks in the evolution of the American salad was lime Jell-O, which appeared in 1930, and began a tremendous proliferation of molded salads throughout the next several decades. The other early revolution was brought about by Hellmann's mayonnaise in 1915, which home cooks across the nation gratefully embraced.

The best of those early salads survive today as picnic and potluck staples--America's heritage on a paper plate.

The First 50 Years

Ambrosia - oranges, bananas, shredded coconut, pineapple, walnuts, and marshmallows in a sour cream dressing.

Carrot - shredded carrots with raisins in a mayonnaise or sour cream dressing.

Chef's - a main course salad of lettuce, boiled egg, ham, turkey, cheese, and appropriate vegetables.

Chicken - pieces of chicken with celery, walnuts, etc., bound with mayonnaise.

Cobb - Invented at the Brown Derby restaurant in 1937, lettuce, avocado, tomatoes, chicken, cheese, egg, and bacon.

Cole Slaw - shredded cabbage and carrots in a mayonnaise or sour cream dressing.

Ginger Ale Molded Salad - ginger ale, fruit juices, and any combination of fruit, suspended in gelatin. During the Depression, when sugar was dear, ginger ale was a practical substitute in gelatin-based salads.

Green - iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, radishes, cucumbers, and other seasonal vegetables dressed with Green Goddess, Thousand Island, or French dressing.

Jell-O - lime Jell-O with shredded carrots and cabbage, or with cottage cheese and pineapple chunks, an inexplicably enduring dish.

Potato - an early German contribution, served warm or cold, usually with a mustard-flavored dressing.

Waldorf - apples, celery, and walnuts with a mayonnaise dressing.


Most of the earlier salads continued to be popular, but the signature salad of the fifties was the ubiquitous iceberg lettuce wedge with Thousand Island or French dressing. Many families made their own version of Thousand Island by mixing mayonnaise and ketchup and, on lucky days, a spoonful of pickle relish.

In the summer, there were tomatoes and other vegetables from the garden. In off-season, meat, cheese, and hard-boiled eggs helped to liven up salads. The previous section describes the fifties salads, with a few additions.

Beet - pickled beets (often cut like Ruffles potato chips) with sour cream and caraway seeds.

Cucumber - sliced cucumbers and red onion rings in a vinegar and sugar marinade.

Jell-O - raspberry with canned fruit cocktail.

Macaroni - macaroni, black olives, hard-boiled eggs, and pickles with a mayonnaise-mustard dressing.