The following, updated article was first published
in a slightly different form in the Los Angeles Times in 1992.
An abbreviated version of "Salad Days" appeared in the Silver Lake
Press* in January, 2003.
husband barely blinked when I told him the lettuce on his plate was an
heirloom a hundred years old. But then he's not easily impressed when
it comes to salads.
For one thing, he's
French, accustomed to eating mounds of greens twice a day between his
meat and cheese course. Plus he grew up among lettuce. His family has
always tended a potager in Normandy, where salads (at least) relish
the near-constant drizzle.
I know the climate
well. I passed my salad days there, too, as a newlywed. Or you might say,
as a sous chef.
Before I was ever allowed
to contribute anything more complicated to my mother-in-law's cuisine,
I was expected to prove my mettle by preparing the dinner salad. It had
to be dressed with finesse. Salt and pepper, of course, just so,
plus chopped shallots, tarragon, vinegar and oil. Normally I could swing
it with two parts oil to one part vinegar, but if my father-in-law had
recently emptied an odd bottle of wine in the vinegar barrel, the vinegar's
pungency would be diminished, and the proportions all askew.
When you work with live vinegar, you've
got to be on your toes.
The other part of the job was cleaning the salad.
It would come straight from the garden, wrapped in a week-old provincial
newspaper, dripping mud, sowbugs and slugs. I won brownie points then
for my lack of squeamishness, and when, eventually, I mastered the salad
dressing, I was accepted as part of the family.
No surprise, then, that
when Philippe and I finally settled in Los Angeles, lettuce was one of
the first seeds I sowed. I've been growing them ever since: No way will
I pay good money for those bloated supermarket salads, or their chlorine-rinsed,
Though I was new to gardening, I couldn't have asked
for an easier subject. Unless one grows iceberg varieties (and who would?),
salads have everything going for them. Seedlings are vigorous, impervious
to transplant shock, plus they take to containers, will grow in part shade
and can be tucked here and there in the garden to cover inevitable bare
spots. And then they taste so fine. I guess that's why lettuce has stuck
around since antiquity. According to the late Waverly Root, it was cultivated
in Babylonian gardens in 800 B.C., and was a favorite of the Greek and
Roman era, too, where it was typically served with the kind of dressing
we use today. As it caught on in the Orient, in Northern Europe and America,
it was flavored with herring, capers and violets (luckily, not simultaneously).
Columbus supposedly introduced lettuce to our shores, and none other than
Thomas Jefferson, a gardener's idea of a real president, was one of its
Lettuce has a history as a mild sedative, too, and wild chicory,
first mentioned in the Ebers papyrus of 4000 B.C., one of the oldest Egyptian
texts known, is purported to be good for diabetes, constipation, anemia,
and liver and skin ailments -- not to mention its prescription as a cure
for spring fever.
In Southern California you can grow salads nine months
of the year (near the coast year-round). They prefer the cool conditions
of late fall and early spring, though, so there are a few tricks if you
sow them later. Most important: choose fast- maturing, heat-tolerant varieties
of lettuce such as Buttercrunch, Salad Bowl, Tom Thumb, Little Gem and
Summer Bibb. Sow the seed in an area with afternoon shade and, as the
seedlings mature, keep them well watered and mulched. On hot days you'll
need to cover them with shade cloth, too, but it's a small effort for
such a reward.
In as little as 45 days (thinnings even earlier), you can
start harvesting the outer leaves. Or wait a little longer and lop off
the top, leaving behind an inch of stem to produce a second crop.
I'm warning you, home-grown
is addictive. Soon you'll want to try all sorts of what we commonly call
salad: four varieties of Lactuca sativa (two heading types: crisphead
and butterhead; plus looseleaf and romaine/cos), and four varieties of
Cichorium endivia (curly-leaf, radicchio-leaf and Catalogna-leaf
chicories, plus escarole/batavia, or broad-leaf chicory). If you get your
seed from nursery racks, you won't have a whole lot of choice. But these
classifications might come in handy if you take the plunge and join the
Seed Savers Exchange (with hundreds of salad varieties) or order from
catalogs (Seeds of Change has an excellent selection.)
My plate is particularly
full this year. Aside from arugula, orach, sorrel, and mustard greens,
I've squeezed into my garden Bubbles, Buttercrunch, and Black-Seeded Simpson**
lettuce. Yet there's
one sentimental favorite that'll always have a place: a flavorful chicory
I've let self-sow for years. This salad's not for everyone. Its texture
is, well, chewy, and its bitterness pronounced. In fact, it's so very
bitter I combine it with other greens in a mesclun, or cook it
with rice in a scrumptious version of Marcella Hazan's escarole soup.
This lettuce runs wild. I've seen it
in Montana and along Italian roadsides. I have no idea how it got to my
plot. Maybe it hitched a ride on the back of that possum that haunts the
neighborhood. I'm pretty sure now, though, after researching this article,
that my backyard chicory -- with its showy blue flowers that close in
early afternoon -- is what the American pioneers called Blue Sailors and
what the French have "improved" for the cultivation of "coffee chicory"
and for the fancy blanched salad called Belgian endive.
Which makes my Blue
Sailors the very same chicory, Cichorium intybus, mentioned in
that Ebers papyrus. Which means Philippe's and my dinner salad is six
thousand years old.
No wonder it's so tough.
* Now known as the LA
** Can't recommend
(c) copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.
FOR PREVIOUS COLUMNS: CLICK HERE
BACK TO HOME PAGE