Hail the Caesar (Salad!)

In School Nutrition’s March 2015 issue, author Brent Frei provided an overview of 10 different leafy green varieties in “Lettuce Rejoice!” including romaine lettuce. This variety, one of the most-loved vegetables among Americans today, earned its spot in the sun a full generation earlier than iceberg lettuce, and eventually impressed the entire world, in large part thanks to the Caesar salad.

As the story goes, Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who operated restaurants in Mexico and the United States in the earlier part of the 20th century, owned a fine-dining restaurant in Tijuana, where he avoided the restrictions of Prohibition. Cardini is credited with inventing the Caesar salad in Tijuana when a rush of guests on July 4, 1924, largely depleted the kitchen’s food supplies. So to offer a leafy green salad, he improvised on the spot with ingredients he had on hand, which included romaine lettuce, croutons, Parmesan cheese, lemon juice, olive oil, eggs, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and black pepper. (According to Cardini’s daughter, Rosa, and contrary to popular belief, Cardini eschewed anchovies, and did not add them to his salad. The slightly briny, umami taste of anchovy derives from the Worcestershire.) A new salad was born.

Julia Child enjoyed a Caesar salad at Cardini’s restaurant—made by Cardini himself—when she visited as a child in the 1920s. According to her writings, Cardini rolled a large cart to the table where Child and her parents sat. He tossed whole romaine leaves with a dressing of olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire, garlic and black pepper in a big wood bowl, then broke two coddled eggs (eggs boiled for only a minute) over the leaves and rolled the egg in. The greens became creamy as the barely cooked egg flowed over them. Finally, Cardini arranged the romaine leaves on a plate with the tips to the center and the stems pointing outward. Child wrote that Cardini preferred the natural shape of whole romaine leaves so that the salad could essentially be eaten by hand by picking up the lettuce stems, with no need of a fork.

By mid-20th century, the Caesar salad was known and enjoyed throughout the world. Indeed, three years before Cardini’s death in 1956, the master chefs of the International Society of Epicures in Paris proclaimed the Caesar salad “the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years.”

Today, the Caesar remains so well loved that it possesses menu-mainstay status in every segment of the U.S. foodservice industry. Even patrons of quick-service McDonald’s everywhere can order a Caesar—made with bite-size pieces of romaine rather than whole leaves, often topped with diced chicken breast, and never offered with coddled egg broken over the lettuce. Instead, egg yolk is a key ingredient in modern Caesar dressing, contributing rich creaminess to the emulsion.

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