There was a time in my life when I thought I knew a thing or two -- about life, about being a reasonably functional member of society, about language, about being a food editor. That phase of my existence ended several weeks ago when the meatloaf salad showed up in my workplace cafeteria.
Several colleagues alerted me to its presence, sending pictures of the cut-up chunks of meatloaf with commentary such as "Really?!" "WTF" and "EEEWWWWW! Is this really salad?"
Seeing as I'm a journalist and all, I took it upon myself to investigate.
The dish was indeed on the salad bar, labeled "meatloaf salad" at 50 cents an ounce, and it tasted like cold chunks of decently prepared meatloaf. I posted a picture online and promptly questioned everything I have come to understand about myself and what I know about the world.
Stuff mixed with lettuce, I get that. Various materials held together with mayonnaise, I understand. Fruitstuffs tumbled about with marshmallows and cream, I don't so much dig, but it has been codified as salad for me in the past, so I accept it as such.
But not this.
"You haven't been the same since the meatloaf salad, have you?" asked one concerned citizen of Instagram. "No," I replied. "None of us have."
People, including some who I've never met in real life, have started to present me with documentation of their meals, pleading for verification.
"Does this heap of beans tossed in dressing count as salad? How about this torn-up sandwich thrown on top of a pile of bagged spring mix? What about this meat I mixed with mayonnaise and threw on a lettuce leaf? Is it salad?"
Yes. Yes, it is, and I say this with the backing of several intensive weeks of subsequent salad research that consisted of deep dives into my vintage cookbook library (including but not limited to titles such as "Favorite Recipes of America: Salads" from 1968, "White Trash Cooking" from 1986, "Clementine Paddleford's Cook Young Cookbook" from 1966, "The Silent Hostess Treasure Book" from 1930, "Metropolitan Cook Book" from 1957 and "The Art of Serving Food Attractively" from 1951) and asking a bunch of people on Twitter, "Does X count as salad?"
After encountering published recipes for Guess What Salad (the "what" turns out to be corned beef suspended in lemon gelatin), frankfurter-potato Salad, ham-lima Salad, Macedoine Salad (that's cooked carrots, peas, lima beans and cauliflower in French dressing) and Pink Arctic Freeze couched under the salad rubric and consuming approximately 2,943 research salads in the matter of a few weeks' time, I'm issuing my verdict: Sure. Sure, that counts as salad, if you say so.
I'm not any kind of professional salad-ologist; I'm just a girl standing in front of a stream of Instagrammed and Tweeted and Facebooked bowls of cut-up meat, fruit and lettuce, wondering how my life got to this point.
Do you want it to be salad? Did someone else say "salad" at you when they wrote the recipe or put it on the menu? It's salad. I just pointed at my greyhound and told him he was salad, and he sort of grunted and went back to licking himself, so I guess he's salad now, too.
I am salad. You are salad. We are all salad. Let us together collapse into the salad singularity.
But, if you want to get fussier about it, here's a rough taxonomy of salads a person might encounter out in the wild.
These are salads for which there is an accepted ingredient list, though the format may vary. People like to get creative with plating and deconstruction and "takes" on these dishes, and hey, that's none of my business. Let your salad flag fly. But this all goes to say that my tuna Nicoise had darn well better include tuna (duh), potatoes, green beans, anchovies, lettuce, hard-boiled egg, tomatoes, olives and a vinaigrette dressing, or don't call it tuna Nicoise.
Likewise, that Caesar needs to have romaine lettuce, croutons and Parmesan cheese doused in a dressing that contains anchovies, or you need to call it something else. Add a modifier if need be: kale Caesar or "Caesar where we cheaped out on the anchovies" but please give the classics their due.
These salads include but are not limited to: Caesar, Nicoise, Caprese, horiatiki (Greek), panzanella, Cobb, chef, Lyonnaise, fattoush, ohitashi.
Several years ago, I attended a food and culture symposium where a speaker described Charlotte, North Carolina's emerging ethnic enclaves as a "salad bowl" rather than a "melting pot," because the people and their businesses merged with the existing population in a mutually beneficial way and yet maintained their distinct identities. Good at lunch, great in life. Have at it.
Take a tossed salad, make an office worker feel slightly power-mad by giving them some say in the ingredients, dazzle them with a little forceful mezzaluna action, and you shall capture their affection -- mind, mouth and wallet -- for all of eternity. Yes, you, Just Salad, Chop't, Saladworks and the rest of the Big Salad cabal. And would it be easier if I just gave you my bank's routing number?