Friday, April 06, 2007

A Long Overdue Post on Salads

You have Melissa Clark at the New York Times to thank for this post. It was her post on salads in this week's Dining Out section that inspired me, because you see, I started writing this post back in May. That’s right – May 2006.

I don't know why I've never finished it - and who knows if my comments feel relevant or original at this point, but enough procrastinating and on to the post.

I love salad. I do. I eat it nearly every day. Sometimes for lunch. Sometimes for a snack. Sometimes for an appetizer before dinner. I am the type of girl to order a salad at TGI Friday’s even though that’s where you go for nachos and loaded potato skins. I don’t feel right if I don’t get my green veggies and salad is an easy and tasty way to accomplish that.

On an early trip to Lincolnton to visit my in-laws, we went to lunch at Don’s Grill in neighboring Maiden. I don’t know quite how to explain Don’s. It’s a small shack and they serve your basic Southern fare: burgers, dogs, basic sandwiches like ham and grilled cheese. I think the most expensive thing on the menu is a fried seafood basket at $7.95. Hot dogs cost less than a dollar. A cheeseburger is only $1.15. Blue-haired women who look like they have been waitressing since the Revolutionary War serve you simple food (much of it fried) in little plastic baskets. Beverages come in large Styrofoam cups with lots of crushed ice. There are a hundred places like Dons around this part of the world. I don’t know what to call them but they are akin to the New York greasy spoon. They are an institution.

On my first trip to Don’s I ordered the grilled chicken plate – which came with 2 sides. At the time, I was rigorously following Atkins and so many of the sides – mac & cheese, fries, onion rings, hush puppies, corn on the cob, potato salad (what’s up with these people – why is everything so starchy?) – were off limits. Still – they had a salad listed as a side so I ordered it. And as far as dressing, let’s just say that raspberry balsamic vinaigrette has not found it’s way into Don’s kitchen. The choices are pretty standard: blue cheese, thousand island, french and ranch.

My salad came out first and it was essentially a bowl of iceberg lettuce. There may have been a strand or two of red cabbage in there but it was pretty much just iceberg. Although I grew up eating iceberg lettuce, I had long ago graduated to mesculun and leafy greens. I was also used to other things in my salad - from the pedestrian (tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots) to the posh (artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, goat cheese).

My salad experience at Don's was a forebearer of what I could come to expect from salads in general dodwn here.

In the summer of 2005, when Marty was living here and I was still in Hoboken desperately praying that someone would buy our house, he called me one night to tell me he had discovered a restaurant in downtown Lincolnton, Court Street Grill, that actually served mesculun in their salad. You had to ask for iceberg special. Whoa.

Having now lived in Lincolnton for 11 months (!) I've come to the following conclusions on salad. They are more often than not made with iceberg lettuce and they seem to be merely a vehicle for a lot of fat: ham, bacon, cheese, crutons and some type of mayonnaise-based or sugar-laden dressing. In fact, they all come smothered with cheese (even at Court Street). The non-lettuce vegetables seem to be afterthoughts - an odd slice of cucumber, a mealy tomato, a wisp of a carrot or a piece of cabbage. Maybe a radish for garnish. They are often an appetizer versus a main course, and they usually cost only a $1 - $1.50 assuming you order an entree. It's like - for an extra buck, we'll throw in the salad so you can feel like you're eating healthy. The irony is, you're really not.

Which is why I found Melissa Clark's article so interesting. Here she was talking about salad not as a healthy dining option or penance, but as a vehicle for the better, more indulgent things in life. And while lardons and duck confit may not have found their way onto a salad in Lincolnon yet, we've got our own version: country ham and calabash chicken tenders.

And if that ain't country, I'll kiss your...