“Lettuce was eaten by the ancient Egyptians and it appears in tomb drawings at least 4,500 years old. Several varieties of lettuces, along with numerous other greens, were also a regular part of the diet of the ancient Greeks and Romans.
In fact, the word salad can be traced back to the day when some nameless Roman epicure sprinkled salt over a head of romaine lettuce and dubbed it herba salata, or ‘salted greens.’ Over the centuries, this term has expanded so much that it now includes many dishes that bear little resemblance to that primal leafy snack. But to me these dishes — potato salad, pasta salad, shrimp salad, and so on — may be delicious, but they aren’t really salads. My salads have got to include some of those greens.
The Romans quickly progressed from just salting their greens to dressing them with mixtures very similar to the vinaigrettes of today — simple combinations of olive oil, vinegar, and salt. Other ingredients — such as wine, honey, and the fermented fish sauce known as garum — soon appeared in the dressings, too.
Like some modern gourmands, a few of the ancients went overboard in their pursuit of salad pleasures, taking the idea a little more seriously than food deserves to be taken. The Greek philosopher Aristoxenus, for example, was said to be so obsessed with freshness that he would go out and sprinkle the lettuce in his garden with vinegar and honey the night before he planned to eat it, so it could be picked and eaten directly from the ground the next day. History doesn’t record, though, how his early morning salads tasted or whether the lettuce was consumed during the night by delighted ants.
In any case, most salad devotees took a more sensible approach to the dish, and the custom of eating greens with dressing continued to gain popularity right into the Middle Ages. A salad prepared by the English chefs who cooked for King Richard II toward the end of the fourteenth century, for example, included a whole array of greens – parsley, sage, borage, mint, maiden’s leek, cress, fennel, rue, and purslane — tossed together with garlic, chives, onions, and leeks in a dressing of oil, vinegar, and salt.
Early Americans also seem to have enjoyed all kinds of greens. Thomas Jefferson mentions, for instance, that the common markets of his day could supply the cook not only with a variety of lettuce but also endive, sorrel, corn salad (mâche), and cress.
Somewhere along the line, though, we Americans seem to have temporarily lost our taste for greens. In the modernism that followed World War II, we were seduced by canned and packaged foods, and we began looking more for convenience than for flavor. By the mid twentieth century, to most people the word salad had come to mean not the flavorful mix of wild and cultivated greens that might have appeared on Jefferson’s table but a wedge of iceberg lettuce accompanied by a couple of hard tomato quarters and some cucumber slices. Spinach or leaf lettuce might occasionally make its way into the salad bowls of more adventuresome eaters, but that was about it.
At the same time, salads began to be pigeon-holed as a kind of culinary afterthought — something to be made with the left hand while the right hand was attending to the more ‘important’ part of the meal. Even worse, salads began to be thought of as ‘diet food,’ a bland culinary mortification designed for weight loss rather than pleasure.
Fortunately, in the last decade or so, greens have re-entered our culinary consciousness. In some ways, this greens revival is simply part of a general rediscovery of the joys of real, deep flavors found in fresh, seasonal produce… our new appreciation of greens also represents a victory over culinary closed-mindedness. After all, the difference between a green and a weed is often in the eye of the beholder.”