salad

 

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.

SALAD DAYS

My 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, bagged counterparts.
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 fans.
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 Alternative Press
** Can't recommend

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(c) copyright Elizabeth Stromme. All rights reserved.

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