“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”
Seriously, I cannot be the only one who wonders why we assassinated the great Caesar Salad? The Caesar Salad is without a doubt one of the most popular salads in the world today, but it bears only a slight resemblance to the original and has nothing to do with the Roman emperor.
The Caesar Salad was served for the first time in 1924 by Caesar Cardini, an immigrant from Northern Italy. Caesar arrived in San Diego in 1919 hoping to build a restaurant but a year later Prohibition hit and he began commuting to Tijuana, Mexico to run his restaurant Caesar’s Bar and Grill.
The restaurant was a destination for many Americans looking for a drink and a place to party. On the 4th of July, there was a large party raging and the now famous salad was invented out of necessity. The kitchen was running low on food, so Caesar gathered what ingredients he had on hand, there was not much left, and came up with a salad. He decided to assemble his new creation tableside to give the simple ingredients a wow factor and some legitimacy. The plan worked on so many levels, and the Caesar Salad was born.
This salad was groundbreaking, and the tableside service was a huge hit. When customers saw the salad being made, every other table in the restaurant wanted one; sales were going through the roof. The servers loved it because their tableside performance earned them big tips from delighted guests. The kitchen loved the fancy presentation because it was performed by the waiter, not the kitchen, which gave them extra time to concentrate on the rest of the meal. The guests loved watching the salad come to life right before their eyes. The new item was so popular that guests returning home took the recipe with them giving the Caesar Salad wings.
Cardini’s restaurant was an extremely popular place for Americans to eat and drink. With Prohibition in full swing, Tijuana, and specifically Caesar’s restaurant, was a popular destination for many wealthy travelers staying at the Hotel Del. The most famous guest being Wallis Simpson, married to Prince Edward, the Duke of Windsor.
Hollywood types immediately brought the recipe home to Los Angeles and soon it was the talk of the red–carpet set. Wallis Simpson took the recipe back to England, and by 1936 the Caesar Salad was popular among the European elite. This was all due to the tableside presentation: the recipe belonged to whoever ordered it.
Shortly after Prohibition, Mr. Cardini left the restaurant scene in Tijuana and returned to San Diego where he opened two restaurants: one on University Avenue called the Cardini Cafe, and the other, Caesar Cardini’s Villa in Chula Vista. The restaurants did okay, but the salad that made him famous was no longer exclusive to him and it was still gaining popularity. Cardini knew he had a good thing in his famous dressing, so in 1938 he moved to Los Angeles and opened a shop on Beverly Blvd selling his original Caesar Salad dressing and other sauces. The dressing was a hit and in 1948 Caesar and his daughter Rosa established Cardini Foods and distributed their creation nationwide; the popular dressing can still be found in grocery stores across the country.
The history of this salad and its quick rise to stardom are well documented. But what happened to this once elegant salad? How did it become the boring, often flavorless salad it is today? As the salad began to appear in different restaurants, each chef made their own variations, the most notable is the addition of anchovies. The original never featured anchovies, but instead used Worcestershire sauce. I and many others love the addition of anchovies, an upgrade that probably came about due to the presence of anchovies in Worcestershire sauce. The original salad consisted of garlic and salt that had been worked into a paste, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, raw egg yolk, fresh lime not lemon, finely grated parmesan cheese, and olive oil. Just the heart of the romaine lettuce is used, and individual leaves are generously tossed in the dressing. The original was served with crostini not croutons, and the whole thing was finger food, eaten with your hands, not a knife and fork.
Unfortunately, the Caesar Salad has become an afterthought, no longer the tableside star it once was. It is now popular because it is simple to make and inexpensive. Without the tableside service, the dressing is almost always store-bought, not made from scratch, strike one. The croutons are seldom made in house and taste like they came out of a box, strike two. The romaine is often from a bag of pre-chopped lettuce and the parmesan is pre-grated, domestic, and flavorless, strikes three and four. It is an insult to the guest that this sad version of a once-great salad gets the same price tag as all the other salads on the menu, leaving me and most others feeling ripped off. The bottom line is with so few ingredients each and every one of them must be the best. Fresh romaine hearts, freshly grated imported Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, dressing made from scratch with good olive oil, Dijon mustard, Famous Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce or good anchovies, fresh garlic, and limes. Once you make this salad at home, whether sticking to the original recipe or trying a fun variation, you will find a new appreciation for this salad and a newfound disdain for what most have been calling a Caesar Salad.
Cardini’s restaurant is still in Tijuana and they serve the famous salad there to this day. There are some fun videos online showing the salad being assembled tableside. My go-to recipe is from Bon Appetit. I love their version of the Classic. I did a fun version years ago, Grilled Caesar Salad with a kicky jalapeno dressing and rosemary croutons. Have some fun and make it your own. If you make everything yourself and use great ingredients, I think you will love the results.
• Clyde Van Arsdall IV is the executive chef and general manager of the Neiman Marcus Cafe.
RECIPES | COURTESY OF CHEF CLYDE VAN ARSDALL IV
The Classic Caesar
6 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained
1 small garlic clove
2 large egg yolks
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, plus more
3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup vegetable oil
3 tablespoons finely grated Parmesan
Freshly ground black pepper
3 cups torn 1″ pieces country bread, with crusts
3 tablespoons olive oil
The Lettuce: 3 romaine hearts, leaves separated
The Cheese: Parmesan, for serving
The Dressing: Chop together anchovy fillets, garlic, and a pinch of salt. Use the side of a knife blade to mash into a paste, then scrape into a medium bowl. Whisk in egg yolks, 2 Tbsp. lemon juice, and mustard. Adding drop by drop to start, gradually whisk in olive oil, then vegetable oil; whisk until dressing is thick and glossy. Whisk in Parmesan. Season with salt, pepper, and more lemon juice, if desired.
DO AHEAD: Can be made 1 day ahead
The Croutons: Make your own. Tearing, not cutting the bread ensures nooks and crannies that catch the dressing and add texture. Preheat oven to 375°. Toss bread with olive oil on a baking sheet; season with salt and pepper. Bake, tossing occasionally, until golden, 10-15 minutes.
The Lettuce: Use whole leaves; they provide the ideal mix of crispness, surface area, and structure.
The Cheese: Caesars crowned with a mound of grated Parmesan may look impressive, but all that clumpy cheese mutes the dressing. Instead, use a vegetable peeler to thinly shave a modest amount on top for little salty bursts.
The Assembly: Skip the tongs. Use your hands to gently toss the lettuce, croutons, and dressing, then top off with the shaved Parm.
Grilled Caesar with a Kicky Jalapeno dressing and Rosemary Croutons
Kicky Jalapeno Dressing: Follow the classic recipe, when making your paste with the garlic and anchovies add half a minced jalapeno including the seeds. Substitute lemons for limes after all there were limes in the original.
Rosemary Croutons: Strip two sprigs of rosemary toss with bread and olive oil before toasting.
Grilled Romaine: Cut Romaine hearts in half. Leaving root intact so they won’t fall apart on the grill. Lightly brush the cut side with olive oil. Grill on high heat until charred but not cooked you really just want grill marks. This will add an amazing amount of flavor.