Before I delved mouth-first into the subject of salads for this story, I thought (perhaps understandably) that they were created by the French. Sounds logical, doesn’t it? However, the French didn’t invent the salad. Mixed greens with olive oil, wine vinegar, and salt were eaten by the early Greeks and later became a staple of the Romans. There are accounts of Roman legionnaires dining on salads that we would recognize in French restaurants today. The Italians and the Russians added to the genre, but not the Germans, they were never much for salads — unless it was made with potatoes. Eventually the French pushed the salad bar higher and higher — if you will allow me the pun. The Sun King, Louis XIV, ate salads at the French court, but he ate a lot of everything else, too. One meal at the Palace of Versailles featured “Green and fresh herb salad in gold leaf.” French chefs like Careme, Vatel, La Varenne, and Escoffier, codified the salad and added such refinements as watercress, chicory, endive, escarole, purslane, lambs lettuce, and even dandelion leaves. All stuff in use these days. But let’s turn to the San Francisco concept of salad and how it got to where it is today.
A FRENCH JOB SKILL
During the Gold Rush of 1849 San Francisco attracted risk takers from around the world. Seekers of gold from many races and nationalities high-tailed it to the makeshift, frenetic town by the Golden Gate. There were Chinese, Sandwich Islanders, Samoans, white and black
Americans, Spaniards, Mexicans, Germans, Russians, and, of course, the French. French men, and a few women, made up a sizable group. Those who did not head for the gold country with a pick, a shovel, and a tin pan, stayed in San Francisco and took up other lines of work. For example, they became merchants, gamblers, harlots, barkeeps, cooks, and restaurant owners. That was typical for this gold rush community. But to this list of skills and professions, the enterprising French immigrants added another job skill — they grew vegetables. And high on their list of crops was lettuce — for salads. Of course! Why am I not surprised?
GOLD RUSH RESTAURANTS
The tiny town of San Francisco became a sophisticated instant city. Almost all its citizens — mostly single men — lived in shacks, shanties, hotels, and in boarding houses that served meals. Or they dined out in restaurants that were springing up. So very early in San Francisco history there were already some quite good restaurants — most of them French — that gave the town a decidedly cosmopolitan personality. Among these was the Poodle Dog, dating back to 1849. The name was actually Le Poulet D’Or, contracted to Poodle Dog by non-French speaking inhabitants. Others were Trois Freres, Café de Paris, Lafayette, and Le Mineur, that utilized the French word for “miner.” Le Mineur, the Poodle Dog, and several others served fine French dishes — stews and roasts and soups were popular. And green salads were usually featured on long and elaborate menus. Lettuce from nearby farms was served with French dressing.
And so it went. And salad-makers became inventive. But let’s take a look at today’s world of salads.
Without doubt the mixed green salad with French vinaigrette dressing is the most often seen on San Francisco menus today. Here and there, this descendant of French immigrants is raised to an art form with just a few ingredients — olive oil, wine vinegar, minced shallots, a bit of mustard, a few generous twists of ground pepper, and a bit of salt.
It’s just about impossible to find a proper Caesar salad in restaurants today. The formerly required coddled egg has gone the way of Jello with whipped cream. Anchovies, a must for me, have somehow become an optional ingredient. Add a few squirts of Worcestershire sauce and what you have seems to be a recipe for blandness, and a violation of the diner’s constitutional rights.
Then of course, there are the “composed” salads, carefully arranged on the plate, most of which become a meal in themselves with a few hunks of good sourdough bread.
Created in the 1920s by San Francisco’s first superstar chef Victor Hirtzler at the Hotel St. Francis, Celery Victor is largely forgotten now. One restaurant that still has it on the menu is Sam’s Grill and Seafood Restaurant, and sometimes I order it just for old times’ sake. Celery stalks are poached in chicken broth until soft, drained well, cooled and then dressed with olive oil and tarragon-infused white wine vinegar.
This one was created by a guy named Bob Cobb, owner of the famous Brown Derby in Hollywood — cubed breast of chicken or turkey, bacon bits, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes, avocados, cheddar cheese, and lettuce. Topped with a Roquefort cheese dressing.
Certainly cole slaw de-serves a place in this salad pantheon. My version is chopped cabbage, with some sugar, salt and pepper, mayonnaise, and cider vinegar.
The secret here is the crab (Dungeness of course) and lots of it — mounded on a bed of lettuce. Iceberg is okay. And a hard-boiled egg if you wish. I would skip other stuff like tomatoes, avocados, and olives. As I said, just pile on the fresh crab and include some crab legs, please. Then top with Louis dressing (see below under “My Man James Beard”).
GREEN GODDESS SALAD
You may remember that this was created by chef Philip Roemer at the Garden Court in the old Palace Hotel. It was named for a play starring George Arliss, who was staying in the hotel at the time. A magnificent composed salad, on a bed of lettuce, an artichoke heart is topped with Dungeness crab legs with a dressing of mayonnaise, sour cream, chives, tarragon, chervil, and minced anchovies.
I don’t get it. Iceberg lettuce is frequently vilified as not quite good enough to be included with such upscale salad greens as romaine or butter lettuce. What’s not to like about iceberg lettuce? A wedge topped by a well-made blue cheese or Thousand Island dressing is a salad for the gods.
Chopped chicken, potatoes, pickles, green peas, carrots stirred with mayonnaise. Not very popular these days. Too much mayonnaise.
One of my French favorites, it was created in Nice. Boiled potatoes, tomatoes, hard-boiled egg, string beans, anchovies, black olives, all on a bed of lettuce, then topped with a vinaigrette dressing.
This old-timer was created at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. It’s a fruit salad with apples, celery, walnuts, and mayonnaise. What would this world be without mayonnaise?
MY MAN JAMES BEARD
And finally, let’s settle this right now: There is a difference between Crab Louis Dressing and Thousand Island Dressing. It’s slight, but there is a difference. And I know you will want to know this bit of arcane, culinary trivia.
Here I’m going to my main man for all things culinary — James Beard. In his monumental book, American Cookery, Beard says “Thousand Island Dressing. This is similar to Louis dressing, and there is a good deal of doubt in my mind whether or not the original recipe was ever recorded. However, if you blend ½ cup of chili sauce, 1 finely chopped pimiento, 1 tablespoon grated onion, and 2 tablespoons finely chopped green pepper with one cup mayonnaise, you will approximate the first Thousand Island Dressing.”
Then under Louis Dressing, Beard says, “I don’t think anyone is certain of the recipe for the original crab Louis, of which there have been many different and many horrible versions. However, this one comes from a great restaurant where crab Louis was served during its heyday — the Bohemian in Portland. Combine 1 cup mayonnaise with 1/3 cup whipped cream, ½ cup chili sauce, 1 tablespoon grated onion, and a touch of cayenne.”
Do you understand why I like James Beard?
And with that the saga of the salad ends.