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COOL FOOD : When Salad Bowls Stalked the Earth

August 20, 1992|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Once upon a time, Americans believed that if you wanted a green salad, you had to mix it in a particular kind of bowl--a bowl of plain, unvarnished wood that could never be washed, only wiped with a cloth. From the 1940s to the '60s, countless American cookbooks referred to this all-important wooden salad bowl.

But during the '60s, food writers as various as Michael Field and Mike Roy began attacking the wooden bowl. They pointed out that the unfinished wood absorbed salad dressing, and the salad oil sat there in the wood getting more and more rancid with the years. As a result, those wooden salad bowls stank to high heaven.

Well, what can we say? We Americans--and particularly we salad-mad Californians--knew what those bowls smelled like, and we knew that the smell was going into our salads, but we thought that was how it was supposed to be. We thought we were making our salads in the very most rigorous and classical French way. We thought we were gradually approaching perfection.

We had actually been sold a bill of goods by a sly old dog named George Rector. He was the son of the turn-of-the-century New York restaurateur Charles Rector, whose establishment used to be mentioned in the same breath with New York's famous Delmonico's (understandably, because Charles Rector had hired away a lot of Delmonico's staff). Rector's was the flashiest American restaurant of its day--the first building in this country to feature a revolving door, among other things.

Its flashiness eventually backfired. During the teens of the century, business fell off and Charles Rector decided to hire some ragged children to stare at the diners through the restaurant's windows. He thought his customers would be grateful to feel among the privileged few, but people actually considered this gimmick to be in shocking taste. The bad publicity helped ruin Rector's.

However, George Rector had already become a food celebrity. One of his father's best customers had been the celebrity financier and gourmand "Diamond Jim" Brady, whose favorite dish was sole Marguery. In the early years of the century, George was sent to Paris to apprentice at Restaurant Marguery in order to spy out the recipe so Rector's could serve it for Brady. When George returned to New York, Diamond Jim is said to have stood on the dock, bellowing above the noise of the crowd, "Did you get the recipe?"

George became a cookery writer after the restaurant closed, and from 1934 to 1936 he published a series of articles in the Saturday Evening Post that were later collected in a book entitled "Dine at Home With Rector." His photos show a jolly old sport with a mischievous smile and a rakish white mustache, and the articles, with titles such as "The Height of Shellfishness," "A Touch of Eggomania" and "You Know Me Al Fresco," had the sprightly, preeningly hedonistic tone that some food writers favored at the time, probably in reaction to the puritanism that had recently given the country Prohibition. It was in the Sept. 5, 1936 issue of the Saturday Evening Post that he published the fateful article "Salad Daze."

Generally what Rector had to say in his articles was quite sound. Way back in the '30s, he was already recommending that vegetables be steamed. He single-handedly revived the pepper mill. But while "Salad Daze" helped put Americans into the habit of eating green salad, it also created the myth of the unwashable wooden salad bowl.

To understand how we could have fallen for the myth and ignored the plain evidence of our own noses, you have to remember that in the '30s, green salad was something of an exotic mystery food. To most Americans, salad still meant either gelatine salad or something like tuna or potato salad: cooked meat or vegetables bound with mayonnaise or boiled dressing.

You also have to remember how Americans felt about French food at the time. By the beginning of the 20th Century, American city dwellers had started to overcome their patriotic prejudices and were beginning to admit that there was something to French haute cuisine. The French mastery of the kitchen made us feel culturally inferior, but in the natural course of things we would soon have learned enough about French cuisine to overcome our unease, as we eventually did in the 1980s.

However, Prohibition kept things from following their natural course because it effectively closed every French restaurant in the country. When Prohibition was repealed, French restaurants were able to open again, but by that time there was a Depression going on. And unfortunately, French food, by its very nature, tended to be more expensive than American.

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