I will never forget the time I ordered a “Chicken Salad” at a diner on the Northshore of Chicago expecting to get slices of grilled chicken breast on a bed of greens and vegetables and to my horror, instead, I got a scoop of mayonnaisey shredded chicken on single romaine lettuce leaf and three stem-on grapes.
Top to bottom: vermicelli salad, soba salad, and shrimp and avocado salad
At first, I was confused. What was this? Then, I was disappointed. Then, angry. I insisted that the waitress got the order wrong – she must have be mistaken. No, my friend reassured me – that scoopable glop on my plate was chicken salad. Well, I never… Meat should never be “scoopable.”
Realizing that what I had ordered was simply a chicken version of the more familiar tuna or egg salads, I managed to palate half the mess before giving up half-way out of sheer disgust. I love tuna and egg salads, but the chicken version disturbed me greatly. To this day, I’m not sure if my disgust was more from disappointment of expectations or out of true distaste.
I rationalized my disappointment (at least justified my expectations) by reminding my friend that I hadn’t encountered either tuna or egg salad as stand-alone foods. They were always sandwiched between two slices of bread. Or, if they appeared on a menu, they always were categorized as “sandwiches.” But chicken salads, listed under the “Salad” section of the menu, had always been slices of grilled chicken with vegetables.
From then on, I’ve been very wary when ordering salads at restaurants. You never know what you’re going to get.
What comes to mind when you hear/see “salad?” Do you see a veritable vegetarian feast – a plate of lightly dressed greens with a variety of vegetables, maybe some cheese, olives and perhaps some finely diced hard boiled eggs? Perhaps the carnivore might add a little crumbled bacon or a variety of meats to the picture. Or, do, you envision a bowl of potato chunks, chopped onions, and celery enrobed in a creamy yellow coat? Maybe elbow macaroni instead of potatoes? Does your salad include fruit? Or, maybe you think of an assortment of pasta, rices, or grilled vegetables, glossy with a sheen of olive oil and bejeweled with chunks of feta, diced tomatoes, and fresh thyme. Is your salad a Japanese-inspired tangy tangle of wakame or octopus with sesame seeds? The Italians among us might prefer slices of vine-ripened tomatoes and milky buffalo mozzarella tucked between blankets of fresh basil anyone? Three-bean, anyone?
The list could go on forever… and it almost seems that anything goes. So, I’ve been thinking to myself – what exactly is a salad? I enlisted the help of some online references. Here’s what I’ve found:
I. Merriam-Webster lists three definitions for salad:
1) a : green vegetables (as lettuce, endive, or romaine) and often tomatoes, cucumbers, or radishes
served with dressing
b : a dish of meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, fruits, or vegetables singly or in combination usually served cold
with a dressing
2 : a green vegetable or herb grown for salad; especially : Lettuce
3 : a usually incongruous mixture : Hodgepodge
II. epicurious.com’s and Food Network’s online cooking glossaries have no single entry for “salad.” Instead, the website glossaries list a number of different salads. Among the listings are: bread salad, Caesar salad, chef’s salad, cobb salad, composed salad, field salad, nicoise salad, potato salad, and Waldorf salad.
III. wikipedia.com says that a salad is “a food item generally served either prior to or after the main dish as a separate course, as a main course in itself, or as a side dish accompanying the main dish. The word ‘salad’ comes from the French salade of the same meaning, from the Latin salata, ‘salty’, from sal, ‘salt’…
It is most often composed of a mixture of uncooked vegetables, built up on a base of leaf vegetables such as one or more lettuce varieties, dandelion, spinach, or arugala. This is often referred to as a ‘green salad.’….
Other common vegetables in a green salad include tomato, cucumber, peppers, mushroom, onion, spring onion, carrot and radish. Other food items such as pasta, olives, cooked potatoes, rice, croutons, meat (e.g. bacon, chicken), cheese, or fish (e.g. tuna) or sometimes added to salads.”… So, what, if any, conclusions can be made about salads? Nothing.
However, generally, salads:
1). Are served cold – or at least not warm.
2). Are “dressed” with some kind of oil-based medium.
3). Tend to focus on, or at least include, produce (ie. either vegetables and/or fruit and/or grain-based products).Other than that – it seems that Merriam-Webster’s third definition comes closest to truly describing a salad: an “incongruous mixture: ‘hodgepodge.’” I guess for me, salad will always be a an assortment of dressed greens with vegetables, perhaps some cheese, and meat. In any other form – potato, macaroni, tuna/chicken/egg, pasta, three-bean, ceviches, seaweed, fruit, or what have you, will always be “side-dishes” to me.