The Salad Queen

Today’s selection — from Coming to My Senses by Alice Waters. 

The famed proprietress of Chez Panisse reminds us that simple is better: “In the early 1970s, I went to the South of France and fell in love with mesclun, a mix of young salad greens that you really couldn’t find anywhere outside a forty-five-minute radius of Nice. I loved it so much that I bought the seeds and planted them in my backyard so we could serve them at Chez Panisse.

Mesclun became a staple on the menu, and we probably served salad grown in my backyard for a good five years, before farmers in Northern California realized the de­mand and began planting the seeds themselves. I think if there’s one thing I’m responsible for in this country, something that I can take a little credit for, it’s the propagation of real salad in the United States.

“I was so proud of that mesclun salad that I took it to New York. In the late 1970s, after the restaurant had become established, Chez Panisse was one of Playboy magazine’s twenty-five best restau­rants in the country. (We were number seven!) The magazine in­vited each restaurant on the list to cook a dish at a big fete in New York City. Immediately I thought, I’m going to make a salad! That’s my dish! 

My close friend Marion Cunningham, who had worked with the famous chef and food writer James Beard, said, ‘James could loan you a bowl, and you could make the dressing at his house!’ (Marion, ironically enough, was a great lover of iceberg lettuce herself.) Sure enough, James Beard loaned me this beautiful wooden bowl, and I made our Chez Panisse version of the mesclun salad, with chervil and herbs and these beautiful little just-picked lettuces we brought on the plane from California.

Mesclun salad “All New York was invited, and every restaurant that had been on Playboy’s list had a station. The other chefs, all men, were French and Italian, classically trained, representing restaurants from New York like Le Cirque. I respected everyone so much, and to be in that company was — well, I felt very honored. When I got there and looked around, I saw that all these chefs were making elaborate ice carvings, putting together their salmon quenelles. Someone down the way was preparing a lobster extravaganza. There was a picture of us that day before it started — I had on an antique maroon dress with little accordion sleeves, with very pale blue stones sewn around the neckline, surrounded by all these men in black suits. To stand there as the only woman, doing a green salad, I was so embarrassed. I almost died.”

Amazingly, that salad was what people talked about the next day. I don’t think I did anything with the presentation at all — I just served it on a plate! We didn’t even have baked goat cheese with it, just, bang, lettuce. But that response really woke me up. It made me realize my naiveté, but I also felt a kind of pride in the simplicity of what we were doing at the restaurant. That I could think of going to New York and presenting green salad as our dish from Chez Panisse! I remember talking all night to anyone who came to my station about how James Beard had loaned me his salad bowl, as if to give me some credibility! Like, Well, at least he thinks this salad is all right.”

Alice Waters | Academy of Achievement
Alice with Prince Chuck

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