by Alexandra Rasic
Have you ever thought about the origins of salad? While ancient Romans and Greeks enjoyed salata, or salted food dressed in oil, vinegar, and salt (sal is the Latin word for salt), it wasn’t until the 1920s that salads became a popular and frequent dish on American dining tables. Addressing homemakers in the introduction to Best Foods The Salad Bowl Cookbook in 1928, Martha Adams asked, “Who is there among us who does not consider the salad a vital part of every well-planned luncheon and dinner?” By following the advice of “leaders in food and health education” who advocated for the serving of two salads a day, she encouraged readers to join her in introducing “into our family menus sufficient vitamins and precious mineral salts, which insure a more perfectly balanced diet.”
The pressure for those who prepare meals in households of today is no different. How often do we hear phrases like “part of a healthy diet,” or “provides essential vitamins and minerals” in product advertising? Promotion of this kind grew out of the discovery of vitamins in 1912 by Polish biochemist Casimir Funk who hypothesized that certain diseases (beriberi, scurvy, pellagra, and rickets) were caused by the absence of specific chemicals in the diet. Vitamins he discovered are known to us as B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), C (ascorbic acid), and D (cholecalciferol). Important things we learned about vitamins and minerals in the early 20th century coincided with the dramatic expansion of advertising and producers’ abilities to innovate products they brought to market.
The April 2, 1927 cover of the California Cultivator and Livestock and Dairy Journal, a weekly publication for California farmers, featured a headline boasting “Lettuce is Becoming a Major Crop,” with an accompanying image of a bountiful field. The caption read:
“Head lettuce has been improved during the past decade to the point where it has practically-driven the leaf varieties from the market. It ships well, even to the most remote markets, and every day in the year numerous carloads leave this state for the eastern seaboard. It is grown commercially in many parts of the state and California ships nearly twice as much as the other states combined.”
The feature article of the issue noted the remarkably rapid growth of the lettuce industry in California. Between 1917 and 1926 the amount of lettuce shipped from the state rose from 2,013 rail cars per year to 27,062. In 1926, the article reported that California grew 65.9% of all commercial lettuce shipped, with Arizona a distant 2nd at 11.9%. New York came in 3rd at “7.3% of the nation’s supply, but it was of the Big Boston or loose head type-not the solid Iceberg or Los Angeles type grown in the West.” In my modest research, this is the only time I have come across Iceberg lettuce referred to as “Los Angeles type,” but Los Angeles was certainly a huge market.
The origins of Iceberg lettuce are actually traced to the East Coast. The variety was developed in 1894 by produce innovators at the Burpee Seed Company in Doylestown, PA. Iceberg lettuce grew in popularity in the 1920s and ’30s because it was cheaper to grow; able to be grown almost year-round in parts of Central California; and successfully shipped on ice, which is how it went from being called a simple Crisphead lettuce variety to Iceberg. Food historian Ernest Miller wrote that Iceberg “was the salad green that Americans grew up with.” I certainly did. While it is far from the most nutritious salad green, it is still one of the most popular for its relatively long shelf-life, crispy texture, and neutral flavor. But not everyone is a fan. Writing for the New York Times 20 years ago, William Grimes wrote “Some American foods inspire pride, like the hamburger. Others, like baloney, have to be accepted as a fact of life. And still others are downright embarrassing. Foreigners wonder about them, and Americans have no good answer ready. Wonder Bread falls in this category. So does American cheese. And then there’s iceberg lettuce.” He goes on to write about the enduring presence of the Iceberg Wedge Salad, “Steakhouses refuse to give it up. And in some very unlikely places, it has earned a strange kind of cachet.” This is still true today. “It’s a little too much to say that eating an iceberg lettuce salad is a way of affirming one’s national identity,” he concludes, “But it is a distinct cultural marker, one of those little tics that make Americans different from everybody else.”
So whether you are motivated to feed your family healthy food full of vitamins and minerals; looking for an economical, long-lasting, California-grown vegetable; or reliving a bygone era of American dining, Iceberg lettuce is there for you, just waiting to be part of a culinary masterpiece that’s a memorable start, finish, or focal point of a meal.