How It All Started

Bob Phillips

The title of this blog was inspired by one of my Spanish professor's at Miami University of Ohio, Dr. Robert Phillips, who died in the e...

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Hail, Caesar!

This week's story is about a salad so simple that it barely deserves the term "salad," yet I cheated on the recipe! When we reached the end of last week, however, we realized that we had not chosen a blog-worthy recipe, but we had a cookout invitation in hand and a full head of organic romaine lettuce from our CSA in the fridge. So we decided that this simple salad would be our featured recipe this week. Fortunately, though the salad is simple, the story is not!

Caesar salad is my favorite salad -- plenty of cool romaine, shredded or shaved Parmesan, croutons (which I love on any salad) and decadent dressing. I repeatedly delude myself into thinking that the fiber and vitamins from the lettuce offset the saturated fats of the dressing. Many restaurants offer a grilled chicken version that I will sometimes order as a main course, but usually I have just the salad. I remember at least one restaurant that offered a "half" version. When I inquired, I learned that this meant "only" a half a head of romaine was used! I also found a restaurant that did not include any form of Parmesan cheese, which is just wrong.

My friend Rob enjoyed the salad I prepared yesterday, but insists that it was not "real" because it did not include anchovies. According to Susan Stamberg's Roots of Caesar Salad story, however, anchovies were a later addition to the Prohibition-era dish. Actually, anchovies are almost always present in almost homeopathic concentrations, because anchovies are an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce, and that sauce (a.k.a. "Woostah-shur") is present in Caesar dressing.

Helen & Cesar Chavez with RFK
read more at Latino Like Me
But I've gotten a bit ahead of the story. Caesar is not only a favorite salad; it is a treasured word in our house. My middle name is Kezar, a Maine variant of the German variant Kaiser (Wilhelm II probably having something to do with my family's creative spelling). It can also be spelled Cesar, as in the great labor leader Cesar Chavez (see also RFK/Cesar connection).

Because we had determined not to name a child James Kezar V,  in fact, we had decided that if ever we had a son, "Cesar" would have been his name.

What does Prohibition have to do with this salad? Quite simply, Tijuana was an easy get away for Los Angeles film stars at the time, and a group that dropped in on chef Caesar Cardini in 1924 were looking for something filling to go with their booze. Cardini scrambled to put together something from what he had on hand, which explains the odd combination ingredients that are found in the salad to this day. Apparently the name of the salad (connoting an emperor) and the lettuce (connoting his empire) are just coincidental!

The Tijuana connections are interesting for me as well. My first foray into Mexico was in Tijuana in the 1980s, and it is the scene of much of Kerouac's On the Road. The stereotypes -- some well earned -- arising from its various vices are sent up in Manu Chao's amazing and satrical Welcome to Tijuana, an essential element in my teaching. I am looking forward to seeing a new documentary film of the same name.

Finally, just a bit about the salad at hand. Despite the fact that I had already purchased Newman's Own Creamy Caesar Dressing, making this the simplest possible salad, I lacked confidence at the last moment. Should I cut or tear the romaine, for example? Our usual mainstay, author Deborah Madison, was of no help, apparently considering this too simple even for her book of basic recipes. Or maybe she does not consider this salad vegetarian, given the fishiness of the dressing.

Based on the Caesar Salad I recipe on, I decided to rinse and then tear the entire head of romaine (after chopping off the hardest part of the heart), toss it with about 1/3 cup of the dressing, a generous handful of freshly-shredded Parmesan, and nearly an entire bag of croutons (specifically sold as Caesar).

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