I don’t know about you, but I grew up with the ‘berg in the fridge, with a jar of Hellman’s on the side. That was as green as it got (and still gets) in my mom’s kitchen. Iceberg lettuce. Crisp, colorless, flavorless.
Usually just a tired limp leaf garnishing a shrimp cocktail or stuck haphazardly in a sandwich, lettuce is one of those things taken for granted. A part of the landscape, so to speak. A piece of furniture. A speck of green and a thing of beauty.
Still considered a new‑fangled rabbity health food by the burgers and beer crowd, and my Mom, lettuce now enjoys a renaissance on the plates of many health‑conscious Americans. Mom says stuff like, “But those other leaves, they’re flabby and have no crunch. Lettuce has to have some crunch!” I give up in the face of this kind of talk, biting my tongue, wanting to retort, “That’s why there’s bacon and walnuts and celery!”
Like Mom, most Americans, when they think of lettuce, still think of that iceberg lettuce doused with chunky blue cheese dressing or swimming à la Michael Phelps in a pool of Thousand Island dressing. But many other types of lettuces adorn the nation’s produce sections today. From avant garde red radicchio to dark green assertive romaine and arugula, the salad lover revels in a wide choice of greens, thanks in part to the farmers market movement and locavore lore.
In ancient times, however, there was no choice: all lettuce came loose‑leaf and headless. Lettuce first made an appearance in the annals of history with a reference in an Assyrian herbal guide, which mentioned that lettuce grew in the gardens of Babylon. Herodotus, “the Father of History,” also wrote of lettuce being served to the kings of Persia. Cultivated as such for thousands of years in Egypt and Asia, it wasn’t until the Romans marched on the scene that lettuce began to “head.” And it was the Romans who gave lettuce its major present‑day culinary role, that of salad greens. From Italy, lettuce traveled to Europe with Rabelais in the Middle Ages and from there to the New World with Columbus during the Age of Exploration in the early 16th century.
Until the time of Thomas Jefferson, lettuce was a not a big item on American tables. He planted something called “Tennis Ball” lettuce, as well as fourteen other varieties of lettuce. His cousin, Mary Randolph, wrote about lettuce in her 1824 cookbook, The Virginia Housewife:
To Dress Salad
To have this delicate dish in perfection, the lettuce, pepper grass, chervil, cress, &c. should be gathered early in the morning, nicely picked, washed, and laid in cold water, which will be improved by adding ice; just before dinner is ready to be served, drain the water from your salad, cut it into a bowl, giving the proper proportions of each plant; prepare the following mixture to pour over it: boil two fresh eggs ten minutes, put them in water to cool, then take the yelks in a soup plate, pour on them a table spoonful of cold water, rub them with a wooden spoon until they are perfectly dissolved; then add two spoonsful of oil: when well mixed, put in a teaspoonful of salt, one of powdered sugar, and one of made mustard; when all these are united and quite smooth, stir in two table spoonsful of common, and two of tarragon vinegar; put it over the salad, and garnish the top with the whites of the eggs cut into rings, and lay around the edge of the bowl young scallions, they being the most delicate of the onion tribe.
Actually, it took another hundred years or so until lettuce decorated more American plates. After World War I, probably as returning G.I.s raved about the virtues of delicately dressed European‑style salads, lettuce became a more important culinary item on American tables. California soon produced (and produces) over 70% of the nation’s iceberg lettuce. The term “iceberg” lettuce came about because of the ice packed around heads of lettuce shipped from Salinas, California.
Almost 520 years after Columbus, lettuce has finally “arrived” in America.
With the current American concern over health and fitness, lettuce plays an important role. When caressed with a light hand with dressing and assorted vegetables and other low‑calorie garnishes, lettuce salads make filling meals for the health‑conscious eater. And even if you don’t count yourself among those ranks, like my mom, you will find that leafy lettuce salads taste delicious and possess extreme versatility: nearly any dressing and other additions makes simple lettuce into a gourmet treat. The following salads may not exactly be diet fare, but they are lip‑licking good.
Once in a while, you just have to say, “Lettuce be,” and enjoy your differences, even when it comes to lettuce. Right, Mom?
Dark green lettuce is rich in vitamins A and C, folic acid, calcium, and iron. Over 70% of lettuce is water, making lettuce low in calories: iceberg lettuce has 59 calories per pound and the darker lettuces carry 82 calories per pound. Even though it boasts fewer calories, iceberg lettuce ranks low in nutritional quality because its pale leaves do not pack the same punch as dark green leafy lettuce varieties. Choosing dark green lettuce means that you will take in vitamins and minerals in the meal. Besides romaine or Bibb lettuce, look for arugula, Boston lettuce, loose‑leaf lettuce, and radicchio.
SWEET‑N’‑SOUR LETTUCE SALAD
6 slices bacon, cut into small pieces
1 clove garlic, mashed and minced
4 T. cider vinegar
4 T. sugar
2 T. water
Salt and freshly‑ground black pepper to taste
2 quarts romaine lettuce, torn into bite‑size pieces
1 1/2 cups homemade croutons
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
Fry the bacon until crisp, remove bacon bits from skillet, set aside. Drain off all but 1/4 cup of the grease. Toss the garlic into the hot bacon grease, stir for 30 seconds, and then pour in the vinegar, sugar, water, salt and pepper. Heat to boiling, stirring constantly.
Pour dressing over lettuce, mix quickly, portion out lettuce onto 6 serving plates, and garnish with bacon bits, croutons, and sliced onion. Serve immediately.
FRENCH PEASANT’S SALAD
2 quarts dark green lettuce (romaine, Bibb, etc.‑‑DO NOT use iceberg)
8 oz. walnut pieces
3/4 cup blue cheese, crumbled
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
2 T. freshly‑squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup oil (2 T. walnut oil or 2 T. good olive oil mixed with 2 T. vegetable oil)
Salt and black pepper to taste
Place the lettuce on 6 serving plates. Sprinkle each plate with a portion of the walnuts, cheese, and onions. 2. Mix the dressing: beat salt into the lemon juice, add the oil and pepper, and beat until mixed. Pour a portion of the dressing over each serving. Serve immediately. Have a pepper mill at table for those who wish more pepper.
LOVERS OF HISTORY AND SOUTHERN FOOD will be in their element with three “new” books published by the University of South Carolina Press: The Virginia Housewife, by Mary Randolph (1824), The Kentucky Housewife, by Lettice Bryan (1839), and The Carolina Housewife, by Sarah Rutledge (1847).
© 2008, 2010 C. Bertelsen