While it’s true that in English-speaking countries Salads before the 1960s were a bit pedestrian, and didn’t have the place of supremacy that they do now, even then a Salad was more than just lettuce with some dressing. While many of those older Salads have fallen out of fashion, who’s to say that the ones we favour now won’t do the same? See the Salad fashion timeline in the History section below.
There are entire websites and books dedicated to Salad. Just a few notes:
- It has long been debated whether to serve Salad at the beginning of meals or at the end. The Romans usually served it first. We tend to serve at the beginning, and the reason for that is because it perks up the taste buds. If you really think about it, though, it’s also because we are used to it coming first at restaurants. And restaurants serve it first, because it gives them time to prepare our main courses;
- If you want to serve Salad as a side during a meal, go right ahead and do so, even though foodies on either side of the before or after meal wrangle will both faint. In the broad march of history, there is ample precedent for careful cooks and food lovers presenting Salad during a meal;
- Greeks don’t put lettuce in Greek Salad; that’s an American adaptation;
- You can get men who aren’t keen on Salads to eat Salad. Just make it a “manly” Salad. Spinach for leaves, chopped boiled egg, grated cheddar, chunks of meat optional, creamy dressing like ranch or blue cheese. Give them something they can sink their teeth and fork into, and make lots, as it will disappear. Worry later on about how to make the Salads more “light and lively”; just get the precedent started, and in the meantime, they’ll benefit from the fresh leaves at least. Men tend to prefer bound or composed Salads over tossed Salads.
It really is worth drying your greens off after washing them, and before applying dressing. Many of us have been lazy, and less than diligent about this at times, but it really does make a difference. If you can find room in your cupboards for a salad spinner, there’s nothing like one for speed and efficiency.
Put vinaigrette dressings on Salads at the last minute because the vinegar will start to wilt the greens after a while. Better yet, pass the dressing around in your nice Victorian cut-glass and silver trim vinaigrette carafe and let guests put on how much or how little they want. That way, those who may be dieting can put on just a drizzle, plus if any greens are leftover they can be bagged for a lunch Salad the next day. But once the vinaigrette is on, the Salad won’t last till the next day, let alone till the end of the evening.
It’s well known that our word from Salad comes from the Latin verb, to salt, as the Romans would sometimes use salt on its own as a seasoning for Salads. Their word for Salad, “insalata”, is the same word as Italians still use today, meaning salted. However, it’s a myth that that’s all they used. Think of all the Salad recipes you’ve seen that have you first salting the wooden bowl, and then making the Salad. Well, that’s what the Romans did, and then they usually went on to apply oil and vinegar dressings. In fact, they introduced the concept of oil and vinegar dressings. Sometimes they added garum, the fish sauce they were passionate about, to the oil and vinegar. Romans generally served Salad as a light first course. They brought to Britain many Salad ingredients such as lettuce, endive, cucumber and sorrel.
Medieval and Renaissance gardeners grew and used all kinds of ingredients in Salads, such as mint, parsley, sage, onion, and borage. But until well after the Elizabethan period, neither potatoes, nor any kind of pepper or tomatoes would have been available for Salad use, as these were New World foods, nor would iceberg lettuce, as this is a recent species. To a dressing of salt, oil and vinegar, sugar was often added. Mayonnaise based dressings were unknown.
The first Salad cookbook was “Acetaria. A Discourse of Sallets”, (1699) by John Evelyn, London. By the mid-1700s, some cookery books mention Salads made with lettuces and nasturtium leaves.
In the 1800s, people distinguished beween raw and cooked Salads, and talked of winter Salads made of boiled root veg with dressings. Tomatoes appeared in Salads in the late 1800s, then by the early 1900s, fruit, chicken, potato and egg Salads appeared.
The appearance of mayonnaise in a bottle around 1915 (Hellman’s), meant that housewives could consider more creamy dressings (and before you label them lazy for not whipping up mayonnaise all the time, just remind yourself how labour intensive an Edwardian kitchen already was, without squeezing mayonnaise into your day into between stoking the coal and boiling the laundry.) The affordable availability of commercial, flavoured gelatins in the 1930s meant that moulded Salads could also be easily fit into a day, without having to boil down pigs trotters before doing anything else.
Salad fashion through the 1900s.
- 1st half of 1900s: Chef’s Salad, Cole Slaw, Potato Salad, Waldorf Salad, moulded jelly Salads, Caesar
- 1950s: Macaroni Salad
- 1960s: Rice Salads, Cucumber Salads, Three-bean Salads, Tabbouleh
- 1970s: the advent of the Salad bar, where we met Alfalfa Sprouts. Greek Salad, Lentil Salad, Shrimp Salad, Spinach Salad
- 1980s: flavoured vinegars. Mixed leaf salads including Mesclun. The arrival of Pasta Salads
- 1990s: Rocket (Arugula), bagged pre-washed salad greens, italian-type bean salads, Radicchio, Endive, Caesar with grilled chicken
Literature & Lore
“Backward to earth, he’d turn his weary soul,
And plunge his fingers in the sallad bowl,
Serenely full, the epicure would say,
“Fate Cannot harm me—I have dined today!” — Sidney Smith, 1796
“My salad days,
When I was green in judgement, cold in blood,
To say as I said then!” — Cleopatra. Act I. Scene V. Shakespeare (written 1606).
“I prefer however to tell of a Frenchman, who became very rich at London, from the skill he displayed in making Salad. He was a Limousin, and if I am not mistaken, was named Aubignac, or Albignac. Poor as he was, he went, however, one day to dine at one of the first restaurants of London. He could always make a good dinner on a single good dish.
While he was discussing a piece of roast beef, five or six dandies sat at the next table, and one of them advanced and said, “Sir, they say your people excel in the art of making a Salad. Will you be kind enough to oblige us?”
After some hesitation d’Albignac consented, and having set seriously to work, did his best. While he was making his mixture, he replied frankly to questions about his condition, and my friend owned, not without a little blushing, that he received the aid of the English government, a circumstance which doubtless induced one of the young men to slip a ten pound bank bill into his hand. He gave them his address, and not long after, was much surprised to receive a letter inviting him to come to dress a Salad at one of the best houses in Grosvenor square.
D’Albignac began to see that he might draw considerable benefit from it, and did not hesitate to accept the offer. He took with him various preparations which he fancied would make his Salad perfect as possible. He took more pains in this second effort, and succeeded better than he had at first. On this occasion so large a sum was handed to him that he could not with justice to himself refuse to accept it.
The young men he met first, had exaggerated the Salad he had prepared for them, and the second entertainment was yet louder in its praise. He became famous as “the fashionable Salad-maker,” and those who knew anything of satirical poetry remembered:
Desir do nonne est un feu pui devore,
Desir d’Anglaise est cent fois piri encore.
D’Albignac, like a man of sense, took advantage of the excitement, and soon obtained a carriage, that he might travel more rapidly from one part of the town to the other. He had in a mahogany case all the ingredients he required. Subsequently he had similar cases prepared and filled, which he used to sell by the hundred. Ultimately he made a fortune of 80,000 francs, which he took to France when times became more peaceful. When he had returned to France, he did not hurry to Paris, but with laudable precaution, placed 60,000 francs in the funds, and with the rest purchased a little estate, on which, for aught I know, he now lives happily. His funded money paid him fifty per cent.
These facts were imparted to me by a friend, who had known D ‘Albignac in London, and who had met him after his return.”
— Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The Physiology of Taste, Project Gutenberg, Apr 2004. First published Dec 1825.