May is National Salad Month in the United States. It’s great that we can celebrate the rise in popularity of these delicious creations. Almost everyone today recognizes the health benefits of salads made with fresh greens and other veggies. But for nearly two millennia that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, the prevailing wisdom since the fall of the Roman Empire up until the 19th Century held that eating raw vegetables and greens was bad for your health.
The Greeks and the Romans both enjoyed salads, not unlike the ones we eat in the modern day. The word for salad comes from the Latin word salate meaning “salty.” While the Romans didn’t call their dish salad, they often ate raw greens and herbs seasoned with olive oil, vinegar and salt. There are many records from Roman writings and history that mention dishes like our modern day salads but none no more detailed than that of Marcus Apicious, who may have been the author of the first cookbook. He lived in Rome during the first century CE and was considered a gourmand and an expert on all things luxurious. He described in his book many different kinds of dishes we would recognize as salads. The simple one of just greens and herbs and a vinaigrette that we find in most other historical records of the period was in his as well, but he gives the recipes for others that were quite complex. In one he covers the bottom of a large salad bowl with bread, then adds layers of sliced chicken, more bread, sweetbreads, shredded cheese, pine nuts or almonds, cucumber slices, finely chopped onions, then finishes with another layer of bread. Not so healthy but one that would not be out of place on a top restaurant in the 21st century.
Sadly, with the fall of Rome, salads began to disappear from the plates of Europeans and would be scarcely found again anytime before the Renaissance. Perhaps that was because of the generally poor conditions that dominated the continent during the Dark and Middle Ages. But also it was due to the massive loss of knowledge and learning that characterized those hundreds of years. Like so many things stamped out by the chaos and oppressive ruling powers of the time, awareness of the benefits of proper nutrition took a major step backward. So it would not be until the middle of the second millennium that salads would again be appreciated.
During those darker times, medical professionals considered raw or uncooked fresh fruit and vegetables bad for one’s health. But ever so slowly, as the Enlightenment progressed, more and more advocates for the benefit of them began to emerge. François Rabelais, a French writer and physician in the sixteenth century, mentioned a long list of “salades,” including ones with cress, hops, wild cress, asparagus, and chervil. Louis XIV was said to have a weakness for salads according to one French food historian and that he “ate a prodigious quantity of salad all the year round.” There was an emerging idea that salads were refreshing, good for the stomach, improved sleep and appetite, quenched thirst and, maybe most important, promoted one’s sex drive.
About the same time in England, a writer and gardener named John Evelyn decided to write a book called Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets. The book was a poetic and flowery book of prose that gave recipes for salads but also delved into history to uncover what the Romans knew more than a thousand years before. Evelyn was trying hard to fight the dominant idea of the day that fresh greens were only for animals and that humans were better off to stick to meat and grains. It is difficult to believe today that an idea like that could have been so prevalent, but true it was, and physicians of the day had convinced people that fresh greens and raw vegetables would sit in the stomach a “rot” causing all kinds of digestive and health problems. No doubt as a gardener Evelyn had personally experienced the effects of fresh veggies in his diet and now he was ready to convince others. How much impact his effort had is hard to quantify, but it would still be another two hundred years before the conventional wisdom would begin to change entirely.
Not surprisingly, the fastest change about salad was occurring in Italy and France along with the progressive advancements in the culinary world there. A French lawyer turned gastronomic writer named Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, did his best to convince his readers of the benefits of salad in what may be the most famous book about food ever written. In The Physiology of Taste, published in 1825, he wrote, “to all who have confidence in me: salad refreshes without weakening, and comforts without irritating; and I have a habit of saying that it makes me younger.” Brillat-Savarin was the first to make the assertion “You are what you eat,” and his writings helped advance better nutrition for the whole of Europe.
While progress was being made, the idea of eating green leaves and raw vegetables continued to come up against resistance by the public at large until the mid-nineteenth century. Immigrants fleeing the revolutions in France came to Britain and brought with them their recipes for salad making, and soon many Brits were partaking of them. And by the middle of the century salad dressings of all different kinds were becoming the rage.
In America, salad was not taken seriously until after the Civil War, again because of the general belief that raw fruits and vegetables were not good for one’s health. Emma Ewing, a writer and teacher who focused on housekeeping and cooking, wrote the first American cookbook dedicated solely to the salad. Along with her books on Soup and Soup Making and Bread and Bread Making, she wrote one titled Salad and Salad Making. That book appeared in 1883, and later in 1896, another female author named Fannie Merrit Farmer popularized salads with a base of lettuce and tomatoes in her Boston Cooking School Cook Book.
By the turn of the century, top restaurants all over Europe and America were featuring salads on their menus. As a result, some salads reached culinary fame and stardom and became the main meal. The Waldorf Salad, the Cobb Salad and the Caesar Salad were some examples of how fresh greens had finally come out of the Dark Ages. Salad dressing companies began to spring up and flourish with the world’s newfound love for all the many combinations of fruits and veggies called salad. Salads continue to become ever more popular. With more and more people searching for healthier meal options, the latest trends are bringing salad to the middle of the plate and making it the main course of the meal.
So during this month of May, National Salad Month, we hope you are eating your healthy share of salads. The new crops of fresh spring and summer veggies are arriving at your local farmers market and grocery stores, so it’s a perfect time to try some new salad recipes along with the old tried and true ones.