..........a blog about food, travel, gardening, and living the good life in Arizona.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

I is for iceberg lettuce

The prime ingredient in the retro wedge salad as well as many other salads produced since the 1920s, iceberg lettuce has been around for a long time! Crisphead, as it is also known, was the only lettuce I remember from my childhood in the 1950s; I didn’t even know there were other kinds of lettuce until I was well into my teens. Back in the day, it was typically found on every sandwich made at home from egg salad to bologna to BLTs. It was often served as a salad too with Russian dressing, occasionally topped with tomatoes or cucumbers or sometimes just dressing if toppings were scarce. 

Iceberg lettuce was so popular in mid-century America that Tupperware even invented a plastic container in which to store it! Many of you will remember these green containers that took up so much space in the refrigerator; the inside had a removable plastic disc with a spike sticking up so you could push that into the core of the lettuce head and then add a bit of water to the bottom of the container to keep the lettuce from drying out. Attach the lid, burp it and voila, crisp lettuce for weeks. Ingenius! I had one of these at some point in the past but got rid of it when we started eating more romaine and other greens.

The story behind the demise of iceberg’s no-rival popularity fascinates me. It happened like this, more or less: back in the 1970s when Caesar Chavez organized a boycott to protest the working conditions of California lettuce pickers, iceberg suddenly disappeared from grocery store shelves and/or became so expensive that shoppers looked to other alternatives. Alice Waters had a little something to do with the unraveling of iceberg’s celebrity as well when she opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, in 1971. Waters simply dismissed iceberg lettuce as inferior produce while promoting the more delicate, flavorful greens she had discovered in France while training there as a chef. As a champion of the fresh and healthy food movement, Waters recognized the nutritional shortcomings of iceberg lettuce (substandard by all accounts) over other greens such as romaine, endive, mesclun, and arugula. These two accidents of history changed our tastes and broadened our culinary choices forever. Who knew?

Today iceberg still remains popular in America especially at steak houses, small town diners, and now, with the resurgence of the wedge salad, it can be found in many fancier restaurants too. I love iceberg lettuce on a good wedge salad; and, of course, one cannot have a real BLT sandwich without iceberg… it would just be wrong and un-American as well. My iceberg wedge salad recipe adapted from Bon Appetit magazine is listed below the photo.

Wedge Salad
Serves 4

4 slices of thick-cut peppered bacon
1/2 finely chopped small shallot
3/4 cup sour cream
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh chives
1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar in a small bowl
1/2 cup crumbled Maytag or other mild blue cheese
Adjust consistency with buttermilk, if needed. Season dressing generously with kosher salt, freshly ground black pepper, and more vinegar, if needed. Cut 1 small head of iceberg lettuce into 4 wedges; place on plates and spoon dressing over. Top with bacon, chopped chives and more freshly ground black pepper to taste. Enjoy!

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