A History of the American 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.
The great salad revolution began in the sixties and matured in the seventies like so many other American social upheavals. In the decade of nuts and berries, salads went natural and organic. Yogurt became a popular dressing ingredient, and salads were garnished with sesame and sunflower seeds. Many Americans were first introduced to rice and bean salads in the sixties, not to mention bulgar wheat, all of which were destined to become increasingly popular later on.
Brown rice - rice with minced onion, parsley, etc., dressed with a vinaigrette or lemon juice, often with avocado and hard-boiled eggs. another take on the brown rice salad was with raisins or dates.
Cucumber - sliced cucumbers with a yogurt-mint or yogurt-cumin dressing.
Tabbouleh - bulgar wheat with parsley and lemon juice.
Three-bean - a combination of marinated or pickled kidney beans, garbanzos, and green beans.
In the seventies, salad became a national obsession. Salad bars sprung up everywhere. It was politically, religiously, and socially correct to eat salad. Along with increased interest in salad came widening choices of ingredients and more variety in salad dressings. Tuned-in restaurants served salads and sandwiches bulging with alfalfa sprouts and avocados, perhaps the two ingredients most identified with seventies salads. Who didn't have an avocado pit balanced by toothpicks rooting in the kitchen window, or a water-soaked napkin nestling alfalfa or mung bean sprouts? This was before Chia pets.
California - butter lettuce or spinach, avocado, sprouts, orange segments, and almonds in a delicate olive oil-based dressing.
Endive - first of the onslaught of bitter greens to hit the salad bowl, and the beginning of a trend to incorporate as many different types of leaf vegetables as possible into a green salad. Endive was usually mixed with lettuce, and was sometimes used as a scoop or holder for dip or cheese spread.
Greek - leaf lettuce with calamata olives, feta cheese, anchovies, and an olive oil vinaigrette.
Lentil - lentils with herbs and vegetables such as parsley, tomatoes, and green onion dressed with oil and vinegar.
Root - a mixture of julienned root vegetables such as beets, carrots, and celeraic.
Shrimp - iceberg lettuce, avocado, and shrimp with a mayonnaise dressing. Frequently, the home chef would add frozen peas.
Spinach - spinach leaves, chopped egg, and crumbled bacon with an oil and vinegar dressing, sometimes flavored with vermouth, sherry, or mustard.
Taco - typically ground beef, tomatoes, avocado, cheddar cheese, and sour cream on a bed of shredded lettuce, served in a bowl-shaped tortilla.
Watergate - pistachio pudding mixed with Cool Whip, sometimes containing crushed pineapple. The common factor uniting versions of this dish was the sea-foam green color.
The salad continued to gain status, taking advantage of the increasing availability of fresh produce, familiar and foreign. In the area of salad dressing, the eighties saw a new star - ranch, which became the undisputed favorite, akin to Thousand Island of earlier times. The appropriate cheese for salads was no longer cubes of cheddar and Swiss, but the more sophisticated feta, crumbled on. Flavored vinegars, such as raspberry, would also become popular,
Baby vegetable - a mixed salad of "baby lettuces" and other cute veggies served whole, such as tiny carrots, diminutive corn cobs, lilliputian squash, and mini tomatoes.
Fruit - no more marshmallows, please! Fruits found in eighties' salads included kiwi, star fruit, pomegrante kernals, mango, guava, and feijoa.
Jerusalem artichoke - one of many nearly forgotten vegetables to get renewed attention in the eighties. It was usually combined with apples and other crunchy ingredients.
Jicama - once an easily overlooked brown root, jicama earned itself a salad in the eighties, julienned and served with tequila and lime dressing.
Fava bean - a large bitter bean which became a delicacy as a salad, precursor to the bean salad bonanza to come.
Fennel - a really classy vegetable in the eighties, fennel found its way into a salad, sliced and marinated with a vinaigrette.
Mixed green - when you ordered this in earlier decades, you got some torn lettuce leaves, a couple of cherry tomatoes, a slice of cucumber, and radish slices. The dinner salad of the eighties, however, became a melange of red and green leaves of varying textures and shapes, the more the better, to include spinach, Romaine, cilantro, sorrel, curly endive, oak leaf, escarole, watercress, various red leaf lettuces, and raddicchio. This was basically a bowl of weeds with your choice of dressing.
Pasta - once all we had was macaroni salad, but now we have "pasta," a raging fad of a food which invaded every area of cookery. One popular version of pasta salad is rotini, olives, herbs, tomatoes, and asparagus in a garlicky vinaigrette. Home chefs often used bottled Italian.
Color contrasts appears to be one of the most important considerations in salads at the end of the twentieth century. We saw purple asparagus, red, yellow, orange, and purple bell peppers, orange, yellow, and white tomatoes, purple endive, yellow watermelon, white eggplant, golden beets, and yellow and blue potatoes spring up in the produce department. Let your artistic imagination run wild!
After the extravagant eighties, we might not have expected any new salad greens, but the nineties introduced arugula and purslane as rediscovered treasures. And, unbelievably, the fiddlehead fern has made some brief appearances as a rare delicacy. The salad cheese of choice? Anything from a goat. And for dressings, we discovered white truffle oil near the end of the decade, eked out by the drop to flavor sauces and salads.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous and well-received new vegetables were fresh mushrooms, burgeoning far beyond the familair white button mushrooms in the produce department into a "department" of their own with dozens of dried and fresh varieties, including shitake, crimini, chanterelles, truffles, oyster, enoki, wood ear, and portobello.
The nineties was also a decade of convenience, with the emergence of the grocery store "salad mix," pre-cut, pre-washed greens for a no-sweat spinach, cole slaw, or mixed green salad.
Bean - the three-bean salad is history, but bean salads were more popular than ever. Black beans, red beans, and white beans were the bases of salads which generally included herbs and vegetables like parsley, cilantro, tomatoes, and green onions.
Broccoli - touted as a life-saving miracle food, broccoli gained in popularity. Raw, it became the basis of a salad that included things like carrots or water chestnuts dressed with mayonnaise.
Caesar - although first made in 1924, the Caesar salad took over as the dinner salad of choice in the nineties, edging aside the bowl of weeds. It appeared in its classic version (romaine lettuce, croutons, Parmesan cheese, and anchovies), and with grilled or blackened chicken strips.
Citrus - white and ruby grapefruit sections and slices of avocado arranged in wagon wheel formation in alternating colors, with a honey-ginger dressing, always with a mint sprig.
Green - the nineties mixed green salad looked a lot like the eighties version, but with a new name--"gathered greens," eventually "mesclun" with a round of toasted goat cheese.
Fajita - the great popularity of sizzling, marinated steak or chicken inspired the fajita salad - beef, chicken, or shrimp, onions, peppers on a bed of shredded lettuce with a spicy dressing.
Mushroom - mixed wild mushrooms, marinated, served on wilted spinach or other greens.
Pepper - sweet peppers sliced, preferably of different colors, marinated in a vinaigrette.
Raddichio - raddichio leaves with marinated goat cheese and toasted walnuts or pine nuts.
Roasted vegetable - roasted peppers, zucchini, onions, and eggplant in olive oil, rice vinegar, garlic, and herbs.
Thai - marinated meat or fish with stir-fried vegetables on lettuce or Thai noodles with a spicy dressing containing red pepper, lime juice, ginger, and garlic.
Where can the American salad go from here? One thing is certain; it must go somewhere. For the nostalgically-bent diner searching for a restaurant which serves an iceberg lettuce wedge covered in thick pink dressing, good luck. But you never know. The quest for the exotic tends to be circular--that lettuce wedge just may be the rage of the 21st century.