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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Gust and Vehicle: The Salad Story.

A few weeks ago I had occasion to think of Raggedy Ann Salad, a scary combination of peaches, celery sticks, cheese, and raisins that are arranged on a plate in the shape of a human. Human salad! My favorite! (I have enough of a problem with those bunny cake pans at Williams-Sonoma; someone is going to have to lop off bunny’s head, and I don’t want to be around when that happens.) Raggedy Ann Salad looks like this:

This extremely loose definition of salad got me thinking: what makes a salad? Can you put anything on a lettuce leaf and call it a salad? Are there salad rules? A salad society? A board of commissioners who gets to decide whether or not something is really a salad? (The answer to these last few questions is no, sadly. I would love to be on that board!) I hit the books to find out the origin of salad.

According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, ancient Greeks were the first lettuce eaters, but it was the Romans who gave salad its name: “The Romans enjoyed a variety of dishes with raw vegetables similar to present-day salad ingredients, such as lettuce, endive, and cucumbers. Roman salad dressing was initially salt (sal) or brine—hence the derivation of the word ‘salad’—and a combination of olive oil and vinegar” (382).

The first book devoted to salad was John Evelyn’s Acetaria, published in 1699. (The encyclopedia gives no indication whether or not Raggedy Ann Salad was included.) Evelyn gives the first official definition of “sallet”: “a particular Compostion of certain Crude and fresh herbs, such as usually are, or may safely be eaten with some Acetous Juice, Oyl, Salt, &c. to give them a grateful Gust and Vehicle” (382). He also listed all the acceptable salad ingredients, which excluded fruit and meat.

Salad in America started out as a purely leafy green affair, but as mayonnaise made its way over from France, Americans got wise to the magic binding powers of mayo, and began their devotion to lobster, oyster, crab, turkey, and chicken salads. They also discovered that contrary to John Evelyn’s rules, you could do what you wanted to where salad was concerned. Frederick Saunders, in his Salads for the Solitary, described salad as “a delectable conglomerate of good things—meats, vegetables, --acids and sweets--, oils, sauces, and other condiments too numerous to detail” (383).

So apparently, it was this American fly-by-the-seat-of-your-salad-pants attitude that led us into the realm of Jell-o salads, frozen salads, and yes: even Raggedy Ann Salad. It seems that if you call it salad, it is so.

For lunch today, have a salad, why don’t you? I plan to have the very American “pizza salad,” myself.

Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Vol. 2. "Salads and Salad Dressings." Oxford, 2004. 382-385.

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