At the end of Act 1, Scene 5 of Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra sits in her palace in Alexandria thinking about Antony and worrying about Caesar. Sadly, she bemoans her loss of innocence, and remembers the days of her youthful inexperience:
“My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,
To say as I said then! But, come, away;
Get me ink and paper:
He shall have every day a several greeting,
Or I’ll unpeople Egypt.”
This was not the origin of the Caesar salad, but given what is so often served as “Caesar salad,” Cleopatra’s worries still ring true. On a culinary level, we really have lost our innocence.
Although there are some who dispute the point, food historians generally agree that the Caesar salad was invented by Caesar Cardini at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924. It was the era of Prohibition; hence his establishment was located just on the other side of the U.S. border.
According to John Mariani, (How Italian Food Conquered the World), it was a 4 July weekend and Cardini found himself low on supplies and inundated with guests from Hollywood. In order to save the situation he put together salads with ingredients he had to hand: Romaine lettuce, olive oil, croutons, Worcestershire sauce and Parmesan cheese.
I remember my first Caesar salad. It was at the McCormick Inn in Chicago in the days of my youthful inexperience. I was 14 and my parents had taken me and my brothers there for a weekend getaway.
In those days Caesar salads were prepared tableside. A large wooden bowl was rubbed with garlic and anchovies, the Romaine lettuce was rolled in olive oil, coddled egg and lemon juice, the croutons and Parmesan were added, and the tuxedoed maître d’ plated our individual salads himself.
It was elegant, refined and fun, bright with fresh flavours, and an important milestone in my budding teenage foodist career. Today I cannot stomach what passes for a Caesar salad in most restaurants and no longer order or eat them.
In Egypt we are undergoing a salad crisis. Salad serves as the gateway to a meal, but too often restaurateurs pay scant attention to this section of their menu as they rush into pastas, pizzas and roast meats. It’s a shame.
I was reminded of this last week when I innocently ordered quiche and salad at the iconic La Bodega restaurant. The spinach and cheese quiches were perfectly serviceable for a light lunch, but half my plate was covered with a lazy clump of unappetising Iceberg lettuce squirted with a dash of balsamic vinegar. I told the chef he should be ashamed of himself (her royal self claims I used more colourful language, but I am sticking to my story).
I had a similar experience the week before at Kiwi Café in Maadi. What was supposed to be a beef salad turned out to be a bowl heaped with (again) Iceberg lettuce—why anyone uses this tasteless excuse for greens when we have fresh gargir, spinach, endive, Romaine, coriander, mint and basil is incomprehensible to me—topped (barely) with a few strips of grilled meat, some crushed walnuts and some cubed Gouda cheese. It was really disappointing and done with such little care. How difficult is it to present a pleasing salad?
Even the salad bars—who cannot be faulted for presentation anyway—use far too many frozen, canned and packaged ingredients including mushrooms, peas, corn, olives, fried Koki chicken, etc. Come on guys. Salads are supposed to be fresh and healthy. Make an effort.
It is not all bleak. Cairo Kitchen serves wonderful and inventive fresh salads every day, and with a lunchtime plate for EGP 25 you can’t go wrong. And to keep me from completely falling into despair, my disappointments were redeemed when I tried a new salad at Left Bank.
Left Bank is a fantastic space, light and airy, with a beautiful view of the river. Open for a year now, they have never been able to get it together in terms of food and service though. When I suggest going there friends decline, saying that while they love the setting, the menu has never really worked for them.
This is changing. The owners have hired new chefs/consultants, they are rolling out a new menu, and from what I have seen you will soon need reservations.
Great news (and more about this later). For now, if you are as despairing of the salad scene as I am, give them another chance and try the new Left Bank salad. Arugula topped with caramelised walnuts, roasted mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, charred Sucrine lettuce, and brûléed goat cheese, it hit all the right notes. So there is hope. Perhaps Egypt won’t have to be unpeopled just yet after all.