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Salad : Unfashionable Dressings: Which Thousand Islands?

August 25, 1994|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

When was the last time you walked into a fancy foodie restaurant, ordered a salad and were asked which dressing you wanted? A national tradition may be dying.

Outside of burger huts and steak houses, the salad world today is ruled by mesclun mixes and light vinaigrettes. So, before the colors fade, let's pause a moment and contemplate the pantheon of American dressings--Thousand Island, Russian, green goddess--in all of their pink, orange and green glory.

In the early part of this century, these fanciful concoctions were the epitome of swell. But those were different days and different salads. Salads then were the height of elegance, the inventions of master chefs who were as proud of their inventions as any designer of haute pizzas.

If that sounds funny, remember that these dressings were intended not for bowls of mixed greens, but for salades composees , elaborate constructions of cold fish, vegetables, meat and fruit, the workaday descendants of which we know today as egg, potato, chicken and tuna salads.

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In the 1923 pamphlet "Fancy Salads of the Big Hotels," published by the Hotel Industry press, you can find everything from the decent-sounding tomato a la Maryland (a tomato stuffed with crab meat dressed with Thousand Island) to pommes Medici (a hollowed-out apple stuffed with pineapple, celery and maraschino cherries and dressed with mayonnaise and whipped cream).

"The fish and meat salads, with the heavier Mayonnaise, are suitable for luncheon, supper, high tea and those Bohemian feasts which begin at the mystic hour of midnight," wrote Olive Green in her 1909 cookbook "One Thousand Salads." "As the piece de resistance of a reception or wedding supper, or even at the home dinner table in summer, where no other meat is served, the fish or meat salad with Mayonnaise holds an honored and proper place."

Lettuce salads were certainly known, but how popular they were is difficult to say. Almost every cookbook of record included instructions--sometimes quite elaborate--on how to prepare a green salad. On the other hand, if salads were truly commonplace, you wouldn't think that much advice would be necessary.

Indeed, there is some evidence of a cultural aversion to green salads among certain groups. One anecdote has the chancellor of Harvard University, on seeing a green salad, thundering: "You serve me a plate of weeds? What am I, one of Nebuchadnezzar's asses?" (Diners who remember the early days of mizuna may sympathize.)

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Whatever the attitude toward green salads themselves, there was a unanimous opinion as to their dressing. "Under no circumstances add anything to the dressing other than oil, vinegar, pepper and salt," wrote Thomas Murrey in his 1884 cookbook, "Murrey's Salads and Sauces."

And he wasn't talking about just any oil and vinegar, either. In a lengthy discussion that would do credit to any 1990s foodie, Murrey comes down squarely in favor of virgin olive oil and tarragon vinegar. What's more, he advises the addition of herbs and wild flowers to the salad itself.

In the late 1800s, there was also a craze for salad dressings made without oil. These "boiled" dressings were made partly for dietary reasons, but also because good oil--not oil from the right part of Tuscany, but merely oil that was not rancid--was rare in an era of limited transportation and refrigeration.

"The 'boiled dressings' are not salad dressings," wrote Green, who nonetheless included more than 50 recipes for them in her book. "Contrary to a notion widely prevalent in the rural districts, salads cannot be made without oil." A typical Green boiled dressing calls for thickening water with cornstarch and mixing it with mustard, sugar, salt and vinegar.

Of course, this fad was bound to fade.

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"I first conceived of writing a book on salads in 1870," wrote Murrey, "one of the principal reasons being that I could not only prepare a very good simple salad, but could also make sixty-three different compounds without using oil, and called by me at that time salad-dressings.

"A reporter learned of my hobby, and after interviewing me wrote a column article on the subject which had the effect of increasing the value of the collection--in my eyes--50%.

"But something was wrong; and it took me some time to realize the fact that complaints of dyspepsia were universal after partaking of one of Murrey's salads, prepared without oil to satisfy the whims of a few who had tasted bad oil at one time and imagined all oil to be bad.

"In my despair I added pepsin (an extract from the stomachs of calves and pigs that was believed to be a digestive aid) to the dressing. This worked for a while, but by degrees I began adding a little oil to these mixtures, and, although young, I soon saw the absurdity of preparing a salad without oil. I burned the valuable collection and adopted this motto: No oil, no salad."

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