Food: Lettuce Is Not Food So Leaf Me Alone

February 13, 2014



Making creative salads is in vogue, fortunately. Trendy health food shops, delicatessens and even the more upper-crust supermarkets have shelves and shelves of exotic seeds, flavourful berries, pungent cheeses and piquant dressings designed to make salad more interesting.

It’s taken some time, but the zeitgeist is finally catching up with common sense. Serving a bowlful of lettuce or its equally tasteless cousins dotted with two quartered tomatoes is no longer accepted etiquette. The tyranny that once made it necessary to consume vast, limp sheaves of the stuff in order to appear polite has been overthrown; the cardboard of the vegetable world can go back to being colourful lining for serving bowls and nothing more.

If you are one of us – those that poke and prod in order to ensure that the feta cheese, the olives, the croutons and the other good bits are all that land up on our plates – you need to know that that’s okay now. Don’t be ashamed. Okay, don’t be the pig that cleans out the bowl, leaving only damp foliage for fellow diners. But do embrace your status as a person of taste.

Mind you, not everyone received the memo. Many hoighty-toighty establishments, secure in the knowledge that patrons won’t question their behavior for fear of seeming unsophisticated, insist on still serving lettuce-heavy starters. They know your bill includes three courses and that you will thus expect a waitron to put at least three dishes in front of you. But if they can save money by surrounding something of substance – a single tomato, say, that they’re going to slice up in such a way that it’ll stretch to feed a whole family – with a fringe of shrubbery, they will do so. It makes economic sense and you can’t blame them on that score. Please note, though, executive chefs: purple lettuce is still lettuce, and expecting us to judge it differently based only on its colour is racist.

The concept of passing off foliage as food is the un-ironic inclusion in restaurant menus of the term “wilted spinach”. Yes, it’s good for you and it contains plenty of iron and all that, but “wilted” is an impossible word to spin in a positive way. When a plant wilts, it’s because it’s dying. It’s an outward sign of an inner malaise; a warning to observers that something is not right, that it is not long for this world.

If a cannibal were to see the human equivalent – some poor sod, wrinkled as a raisin and ready to pass out, they would not believe that eating such a person’s heart would make them braver, or that feasting on his brain would give them wisdom. They would, at best, tie him to a tree somewhere and make a note that he was available as a last resort, if absolutely necessary.

But nobody in a restaurant that has wilted spinach on the menu is in need. Such venues are frequented by people who have more than they need. It’s a certainty that these folk could easily afford a Happy Meal at MacDonalds, something that has about the same nutritional value as lettuce, but which comes with fries and a toy.

Salad can be lovely: it’s lighter and more healthy than fried food, less stodgy than starch and easier to make than just about anything that requires a pot or a pan. But there’s more to life than lettuce. It’s green, and that’s great – all good hosts and hostesses will know that a bright cheery table arrangement looks more welcoming than some monochrome muddle.

But it’s not food. It’s only reward is that, if it’s fresh and you eat the crispy bits near the middle, you get the occasional burst of fresh, cold water in your mouth as you crunch it between your molars. All the rest, though is listlessness on a plate. Leaf it alone.