By their lettuce we shall know them

One way to track culture is to track cuisine.

And one way to track cuisine is to track farm produce.

Why?  Because farm produce comes with numbers as crisp as a head of iceberg lettuce.

Consider this snippet from an essay by Russ Parsons:

As late as the mid-1970s, iceberg lettuce accounted for more than 95% of all of the lettuce grown in this country.

Then along came the reborn Caesar salad. Invented in a Tijuana restaurant in the 1920s (which one is a subject of a bitter interfamilial dispute), for decades the Caesar kind of limped along in all of its garlicky glory as a California specialty Then, all of a sudden, in the late 1970s it was "discovered" by the fast food industry, often topped with very untraditional grilled chicken, and there followed a couple of decades of extremely heady popularity.

From almost nothing, by the mid ’90s, more than 16,000 acres of romaine was being grown. By 2000 that had increased to more than 60,000 acres and today it stands at more than 80,000.

Now, the work of the CCO begins.

What was the cultural significance of the iceberg salad? I think the answer here has something to do with what we were doing to food after World War II. Iceberg lettuce was easy to truck. It "kept" well. It was easy to prepare. Kids liked the snap, crackle, pop. The fact that it didn’t seem entirely natural…well, this was the 1950s, the decade that gave us TV Dinner, Tang, and Sugar Pops. In the 1950s, artifice was not a bad thing in food. Indeed, a postwar culture seemed to delight in seeing just how far food could be removed from nature. Consider Kraft Dinner. That orange color. It looked radio active.  And that was regarded as a good thing, something one looked for in a family dinner.

But what about Caesar salad?  It feels very Frank and the Ratpack, doesn’t it?  Extravagant in its garlic, in its dressing and, when prepared at table, in its theater.  Caesar salad is the kind of salad you would expect to be served in one of those swank night clubs, the ones you entered, if you were any kind of celebrity, through the kitchen, dropping twenty dollar bills as you went. (Recall from memory, please, the scene in Goodfellas movie.)

But while Frank and the Ratpack have been enjoying a certain "reheating" in the last few years, chiefly in the form of the "playa," the rest of American cuisine has moved swiftly away from just about everything it stands for.  So why?  Why should the Caesar salad have flourished?  What does it say about us?

Your turn.  Best answer gets a copy of Chief Culture Officer.


Parsons, Russ.  2010.  Rise of the Modern Romaine Empire.  LA Times.  January 27, 2010. here.


Thanks to Alexis Madrigal for featuring this article on his website.  See this excellent website here.

Thanks to Alisa Weinstein for letting me know about Alexis’ website.

Note: This post was lost in the Network Solutions debacle of 2009.  It was reposted December 25, 2010,