Origin of popular salad linked to Tijuana

Story and photo by Katherine Larson
At last it’s June, and glorious lettuces are leaping out of our formerly ice-bound earth. Hasten out to your garden patch or to your local farmer’s market to get them at their freshest.
And then…?
Well, to my way of thinking, a Caesar salad is about as good as it gets. So I sat down with enthusiasm to research Caesar salads for this article. Whew! What a can of worms!
Everyone, it seems, has an opinion, and everyone believes that theirs is the only correct opinion. Usually I yield to no one in my level of opinionated stubbornness, but here, faced with a barrage of angry voices, I back off. Instead, I offer you some history—or quasi-history—and some often-conflicting ideas.
First, the history. No, Caesar salad has nothing to do with Julius Caesar, or Augustus either. Instead, it’s named after a man named Cesare who was either a great improvisational cook or a great appropriator of ideas.
Cesare Cardini and his brother Alessandro were born in northern Italy, then immigrated to the United States—Cesare before and Alessandro following World War I. After working as a chef in Northern California, Cesare opened his own place in San Diego. Prohibition offered opportunities for restaurateurs near the border, so in 1920 he started a second restaurant in Tijuana where southern Californians could enjoy an alcoholic beverage with their meal.
The Los Angeles Times called Tijuana “the city that was Vegas before Vegas was Vegas,” and the glitterati flocked there. On a summer weekend in 1924, so goes the legend, thirsty Los Angelenos cleaned out Cesare’s restaurant so completely that he—or his brother Alessandro, or his kitchen helper Livio Santini, or someone—did what chefs do: pulled together something to eat from what was on hand.
Thus, the Caesar (for Cesare) salad. In its initial appearance, it involved only lettuce, olive oil, raw egg, Worcestershire sauce, croutons, Parmesan cheese, and a citrus fruit. The lettuce leaves were whole, little boats of romaine used to scoop up the dressing. The citrus fruit was limón, which has come to be thought of as lemon but was more probably the sort of lime used to make Key lime pie. No anchovies, except to the fairly minimal extent that anchovies are an ingredient of Worcestershire sauce.
Cesare or his designees whipped all this up at tableside, perhaps hoping to use showmanship to impart a little pizzazz to what might otherwise have been thought an underwhelming meal. It worked; Caesar salad became a hit.
All this is true unless you believe Paul Maggiore, a partner of the Cardini brothers, who claimed to have invented the salad in 1927. Or unless you believe Giacomo Junio, who claimed to have invented it—in Chicago, of all places—back in 1903. Or unless you believe that the real artist was an unheralded Mexican in the kitchen who stood back and let the Italians duke it out. Rosa Cardini, Alessandro’s granddaughter, went to her grave passionately upholding her grandpa’s claim. The dispute roils on.
What is clear is that the addition of anchovy was a later, but not much later, accretion: both Maggiore and Alessandro said that it was their idea, and both said that they added it to satisfy the cravings of U.S. Air Force pilots who had popped over the border for a night on the town. Whoever thought of the idea, I say hooray.
And whoever thought of it, the result spread like wildfire. As a young girl, Julia Child was taken to Tijuana by her parents for salad made by Cesare himself. Wallis Simpson—notorious mistress of the then Prince of Wales, who famously abdicated from his job as King of England in order to marry her, much to the relief of those in Britain who feared the pair’s Nazi-loving proclivities and thankfully packed them off to Bermuda to sit out World War II—Wallis Simpson loved the salad so much that, as she traveled Europe, she insisted on teaching the recipe to every chef she encountered.
In 1953, the International Society of Epicures in Paris named the Caesar salad “the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years.”
So how does one make a Caesar salad? The disputes are as fierce as those over history. But the good news is that the decision-maker is you. The kitchen police won’t come after you, whatever you do. Just suit your own taste.
That said, it’s good to take a little time to ponder the variables, even to experiment, so you know that your eventual decision is both intentional and thoughtful. Here’s a quick rundown.
Type of greens. The classic green for this salad is romaine lettuce, and romaine has a lot going for it. The inner leaves, especially, are stiff enough to hold up to what is sometimes a fairly gloppy dressing, and its slight hint of bitterness complements the other flavors nicely. Escarole adds a bit more bitterness, while Belgian endive and chicory have their fans but are more bitter still—too much so for my taste. Then there are the people who use kale (slightly bruised with some salt to soften it) or even shaved Brussels sprouts. Is that still a Caesar salad? Depends on your definition, I guess.
Size of greens. This is a related but separate question. Obviously, if you’re shaving Brussels sprouts the resulting greens will be very fine indeed. Where disagreement arises is with the standby, romaine. Do you cut or tear the lettuce into bite-size pieces to make it easier to eat? If so, the pieces risk getting drowned in dressing. Do you offer whole leaves (the inner ones), for diners to cut up or to munch as finger food? While the original salad was apparently served that way, by this point in the twenty-first century I suspect that you’d have to coax surprised guests into picking up their little lettuce boats by hand. But they might be pleasantly surprised, once persuaded.
Croutons. Here there are three issues: type of bread, shape of croutons, and method of creation. On type, you don’t want a sweet bread. Sourdough or an excellent country white are the two most common choices, but I could imagine branching out into whole wheat (not honey) or even rye (not pumpernickel). You want the croutons to be part of the harmonious whole.
You might not think that the shape of the croutons would matter, but it does. A simple cube makes for fast cutting, but tearing the bread produces all sorts of nooks and crannies that are perfect for amalgamating with dressing or even (see next paragraph) importing additional flavor into the salad.
The major issues with croutons turn on flavor. Do you toss them in a bit of olive oil and let them toast in a warm oven for 20 minutes? That gives you crunch but not a ton of flavor. Do you heat a little more oil in a skillet and gently sauté them till golden? That also gives you crunch and a bit more flavor. Do you first infuse the oil with garlic before sautéing the croutons? More flavor still. Do you add a few finely-chopped anchovies to your garlic-infused oil? Yowza! Plenty of flavor. Whatever you do, though, be sure to make your croutons fresh. A stale crouton is a miserable object, fit only to be shoved to the side of the plate.
Mayonnaise. A word on terminology: a sauce made by beating oil into an egg with a tad of citrus is indeed a mayonnaise. So here the first question is whether you are going to go with the jar of mayo in your fridge or whether you will follow tradition and make the dressing yourself. While convenience is important, for this particular salad the flavor difference is huge. If you’re going to the trouble of making something labeled Caesar, this one time I urge you to do it yourself.
Which leads to a second question: how? There are people who swear that a good mayonnaise has to be made by hand, whisking the oil in drop by painstaking drop. To those people I say, good for you. But those people don’t have my sore shoulder. If you’re willing to accept a slight reduction in the silkiness of the final product, I encourage you to consider your food processor as a very acceptable alternative.
If you do it yourself, though, you have to be comfortable with using a raw egg yolk. I am, because I don’t buy supermarket eggs and I trust my source. Otherwise, a quick way to ease your mind is to put the egg (still in its shell) in a coffee mug, fill the mug with boiling water and let it sit 90 seconds, then tip the egg out.
Lemon versus lime. Lemon has become standard. If you want to see why people make the linguistic fuss about how to translate limón and if you have access to a Key lime, give it a whirl.
Garlic. I have read recipes for Caesar salad that called for the cook to slice a clove of garlic in half, rub one cut half around the salad bowl, then discard it. Sorry, folks; if you’re not fond of garlic, pick a different salad. Here, despite my earlier promise, I’m going to be dogmatic: it’s not a Caesar unless you add a goodly amount of garlic, ideally by taking your chef’s knife and cutting up several cloves very fine with a little coarse kosher salt until you have a fragrant paste. Or you could toss them into the food processor along with a bit of Worcestershire sauce as part of the mayonnaise-making process.
Parmesan. Okay, I guess that I’m constitutionally incapable of holding my opinions back: Please don’t use the pre-shredded stuff. Please do use the best Parmesan you can afford. Please consider setting your box grater aside and instead using your vegetable peeler to make Parmesan shavings. But even the worst Parmesan is better than no Parmesan at all.
Anchovies. I’ll back off again. If you hate anchovies, you just do, and that’s fine. Get your umami from the Worcestershire, or even from a bit of high-quality miso beaten into the dressing. But if you do tolerate anchovies, try emulsifying one or two into the dressing. That way, you won’t be taken aback by any fishy bites; instead, all the complex flavors will blend into each savory mouthful. And if you truly love anchovies, the Caesar is your friend.
Indulge yourself.

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