Lost Salads of the South
I love salad—a lot. I actually love it so much that I started a newsletter about it, "The Department of Salad: Official Bulletin." I'm so obsessed that I'm constitutionally incapable of truly disliking it in any form. So it always hurts my feelings if someone disparages one.
As a Southerner, however, I would like to request that the rest of the country stop blaming the South for congealed/gelatin salads. I may prefer a nice tomato-and-cucumber salad with a bit of red onion, but I'm not ashamed to say I have a nostalgic affection for those outlandish contrivances full of nuts and fruit and shredded vegetables. This explains why I get upset at Thanksgiving if I don't see at least one on the table. ("Hey, where's the Lime-Cabbage-Pecan-Marshmallow Surprise? No, I don't want to eat any. I'm just making sure it's here.")
Contrary to what so many of my dog-eared, spiral-bound Junior League and vintage Southern cookbooks imply with their abundant "Fluffs" and "Delights," we did not invent the trick of suspending food in jiggling gelatin. That practice can be traced to ancient savory aspics—some historians claim they date to medieval France, and others say as far back as 10th-century Arabic cooking. Instead, blame food manufacturers' marketing campaigns for the early- to mid-century explosion of congealed salads.
If you travel further back into our culinary past, salads reflect the produce grown here much more than the rise of convenience foods. We grow almost every single vegetable found throughout the rest of the United States, as the great Southern journalist John Egerton pointed out in his 1987 classic Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History. He referred to our region as America's "primary and perennial orchard grove and truck garden."
So back in 1824, when Mary Randolph published The Virginia Housewife (considered to be the country's first real cookbook), she included many ways to prepare artichokes, asparagus, eggplant, sea kale, sorrel, spinach, sugar beans, turnips, and peas. She also gave instructions for dressing a salad that are so bossy and up-to-the-minute that they could have been written yesterday—by me. ("To have this delicate dish in perfection, the lettuce, pepper grass, chervil, cress, &c. [sic] should be gathered early in the morning, nicely picked, washed, and laid in cold water, which will be improved by adding ice...") The Williamsburg Art of Cookery, a collection of recipes from Virginia households in the 18th and early 19th centuries, has a section called "Garden Stuff and Salads." And The Carolina Housewife, published in 1847, has a tomato salad, of course.
Southerners were salad people almost a hundred years before the "garden salad" became ubiquitous at home and in restaurants. But here's the thing: We've never crowed about our salads. Unlike the Caesar, the Cobb, the Waldorf, the Niçoise, and other famous ones named after chefs, restaurants, or cities, our recipes grew out of the everyday eating habits of gardeners and home cooks.
The five following recipes could be considered our lost salads, but the truth is that we have them memorized. They're as second nature to us as putting on a pot of beans or making a pan of cornbread.