Salads: The First Meals

Salads were one of the first primitive meals created by ancient humans, albeit a culinary accident. Before man discovered pottery or even fire, he knew how to forage for food. A handful of wild leaves, roots, nuts, and berries was not only precious nourishment; it was a crude form of salad. Modern man may have refined the techniques and dressings since those early meals, but the basic principle of mixing fresh ingredients into a healthy and tasty creation still stands at the core of every great salad.

The most popular and recognizable salads contain young and/or leafy plants. Many civilizations recognized the value of fresh spring greens after a long winter subsisting on dried plants and smoked meats. At a primitive level, people understood that vitamins sapped away by the poor winter fare were replenished with the consumption of young and/or leafy spring plants. Thus, salad was not only one of the first meals; it was one of the first popular forms of “health” food.

Many cultural dishes call for some sort of salad and dressing combination, but it was ancient Rome's love of salads and dressing that formed the corner-stone for modern versions of the dish. Like many things, the Romans borrowed their knowledge of salads and healthy food from the Greeks. However, they added the distinct Roman element of indulgence and embellished the simple meals with flavorful sauces and garnishes. In fact, dressing salads with vinegar, oil, and salt was an extremely popular practice during the Roman era.

The Decline of Salads

While salads still existed after the fall of Rome, they did decline in popularity. The medicinal community went back and forth on whether raw fruits and vegetables were healthy or poison. At times people were encouraged to eat fresh produce, and at others, they were warned against it at the risk of their very lives. While modern people may think it silly to avoid eating fresh produce, there was a very serious logic behind the recommendation.

Up until and even into the twenty-first century many civilizations used “nightsoil” to fertilize fields. Nightsoil is simply a polite way of saying human excrement. The ease of disease transmission from excrement to plant to person meant that eating raw produce did carry a significant danger, especially during a time when few people had access to clean water for washing themselves or their food. Thus, it is not surprising that the fall of Rome, and its extensive aqueduct and waste systems, resulted in western cultures turning to safe cooked food instead of potentially dangerous raw food.

The Salad Rises Again

Starting during late medieval times and gaining speed during the Renaissance, Mediterranean cultures helped bring salads back into the mainstream. By the late 1800s, salads were back in vogue among Western civilizations. This is due to both the boom in exchanged ideas due to immigration and to a somewhat more sophisticated knowledge of hygiene. It's also worthy to note that salads gaining popularity and the Victorian era seem to coincide. This may be partially due to the Victorian fascination with personal health and any activities, elixirs, or food items reputed to have health benefits.

Fannie Farmer is a legend in the world of cooking for being the first person to write a concise cookbook that used measurements. Her cookbook, The Boston Cooking School Cookbook, was first published in 1896 and is still available to this day. It included precise measurements, such as 1 cup and ⅛ teaspoon, instead of general amounts, such as a handful and a pinch.

By 1883, the first American cookbook dedicated solely to salads was published. Along with the wave of new salad enthusiasts came new kinds of salads, especially the new idea of molded gelatin salads. After the turn of the century, fancy salad dressings and salad recipe cookbooks were common items in stores across Europe and America. The early twentieth century saw the creation of such timeless classics as the Waldorf salad at the Waldorf Astoria restaurant, the Cobb salad at the Brown Derby restaurant, and Green Goddess salad dressing at the Palace hotel.

Salad in Eastern Civilizations

Many Middle and Far Eastern civilizations also enjoy dishes that can be classified as salads. The most noticeable exception to this rule is China. Due to China's ancient history of large populations and big cities, it has long faced problems with disease and distribution, and thus there are very few raw salad-like dishes. The most popular “salad-like” meals usually consist of pickled ingredients as opposed to raw.

Anthropologists note that a need for fertilized land and human waste removal made nightsoil a natural choice for Chinese farmers, so eating raw food was often a bad idea. In addition, the need to prepare harvests for transporting to faraway cities required smoking, drying, pickling, salting, and other preservation methods. The danger of raw food and reliance on preserved items developed into the logical cultural practice of eating only prepared goods.

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