Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Big Salad

A Proper Side Salad w/Pizza
I took the family to our local pizza joint the other night. The place makes a nice Chicago thin crust pie with flavorful ingredients so when the offer of a garden side salad for two extra bucks was proposed by our server I said yes. I'm not going to mention the name of the place or provide a photo of what showed up at the table. Let's just say that apparently charging two dollars for a handful of iceberg lettuce topped with some shaved carrot, onion, and a tablespoon of dressing from a can is still considered good practice in some places.

And can we talk croutons? Oh, let's talk croutons. Croutons are a great use for stale bread, but you have to make an effort to have them taste like croutons. I was served cubes of stale bread. Thanks for cutting it up.

Also, iceberg lettuce? Really? A minimum of vitamins and a few water molecules is what I get for two bucks? The iceberg lettuce thing was supposed to be over years ago, wasn't it? I believe everyone should have gotten that memo around the time when the mixed green salad and the spinach salad were proven superior to the flavor vacuum that is iceberg lettuce. Didn't that happen?

I AM LETTUCE OF ICEBORG. NUTRITION IS FUTILE.

I suckered myself, really. I didn't ask. I didn't look it up in the menu. I trusted the people who had crafted a tasty pizza to put more than a piddling effort into a two dollar salad. When I'm served what amounts to the same thing in a Japanese restaurant I'm not so irate but that's because I'm about to eat other things with some fiber and nutrients. Pizza, while delicious, is slightly more nutritionally dense than a shoe. And in a Japanese restaurant the "minimal effort salad" comes with the meal at no extra charge.

Regular readers of this blog know that I like a big salad, even in a small portion, but unlike some whining Yelpie I will still go back to my neighborhood spot for a good pizza. I understand that they are a restaurant and their purpose is to make a buck, or two, in order to remain open. Iceberg lettuce is easy on the overhead and they are not now, nor will they ever be, my nutritionist. Also, by definition, what I was served was a salad. It just wasn't a good one. That understood, I won't be ordering the salad again. It doesn't take a grueling effort to assemble something that pleases both the palate and meets some the body's nutritional requirements so I see no reason to overpay for a lack of effort. I'm not sure that they are making the right economic decision by serving such a salad at that price but it is theirs to make.

Still, I must ask what has become of the salad? Since ancient Rome the salad has been an important part of the dining habits of many cultures. In American culture, however, the salad has been relegated to the status of "bunny food", "diet food" and "that which is not bread or meat". There is little value in a salad when our death worshipping culture refuses to accept as living anything that doesn't audibly scream and emit viscera when slaughtered. Most folks don't want to actually see such a scene, but they derive comfort from knowing that it is there. So, why throw your heart and soul into something that no one at the table will take seriously? Huck some cherry tomatoes on bowl of iceberg and be done. Maybe someone went on a diet, you never know.

But our national love affair with gout doesn't explain it all. I feel that another part of the equation is that people are confused by the word salad.

Like the martini, and even the pizza before it the salad had a noble beginning as one thing before the word became attached to an ever-evolving variety of things that look similar, but are not in fact that thing. A vodka martini is not a martini, nor is the cutesy apple-tini or its "woo-girl" friends the choco-tini and the roofie-tini. The similarity between a buffalo chicken and bleu cheese pizza or any of the abominations Pizza Hut serves and what came out of Naples ends with the word "crust". This kind of thing happens when people are too lazy to come up with a new word, which is kind of a dick move for a culture with so many different words for a dick.

Honestly, I've been guilty of embracing such naming conventions myself but in my defense I have arrived fashionably late to the bbq, bbq chicken pizza and vodka martini parties. Sorry. I am so sorry and I would like to apologize right now to all of the hicks, juniper berry fans and Neapolitans of all three stripes out there for my slacker vocabulary. Actually, I take the juniper bit back. While I have enjoyed the flavor of juniper in cooking, gin still tastes like someone is dry cleaning my palate. It's the kind of sensation no garnish can mask. Which brings us, in a way, back to salad.

The word salad has gone from being associated with the basic "raw leafy vegetables with an oil and acid dressing" to being a catch all for anything people can't find any other way to describe. Ancient Romans ate leafy vegetables and dressing. Ancient Romans did not eat Jello salad. Calling Jello salad a salad is like calling the face hugger from Alien a scarf.

Still, while there's little that can be done about wayward linguistic developments I would like to call for pushing the iceberg lettuce salad off of a cliff and our menus to make room for a more flavorful mixed green standard salad. I understand that iceberg lettuce producers need to eat too and that iceberg has its fans, but can we at least ask restaurants to offer a spinach or kale-based alternative? And if they are going to make an iceberg lettuce salad, can they at least make an effort toward producing something edible? Failing all of that, I should get to kick the restaurant owner in their lettuce when they're charging two bucks for something I'd hesitate to serve to a bunny.

What can I say? I like a big salad.


A Proper Big Salad

Rinse, stem and shred some kale. Throw it in a bowl. Shave some carrots. Scoop some avocado. Cube some beets. Crumble some goat cheese. Make a dressing from grenadine, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Put it all together. Eat, you lunatics.