During these salad days, let us entertain you

When it’s too hot to cook, the Monitor’s language columnist considers how salads really are worth their salt.

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When it's too hot to cook, the Monitor's language columnist considers how salads really are worth their salt.

I'm going to start by admitting this is maybe not a burning question – the burning questions are being answered out on the deck, where our host is wrestling an enormous rack of ribs into submission on the grill.

So call this a leafy green question instead: How can the word salad be applied to so many different kinds of dishes?

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As we wind down a summer that's included a lot of salads for dinner on nights when it's been too hot to cook, the question has loomed larger.

In my earliest childhood, a "salad" was a small dish of iceberg lettuce adorned with what was known as "French dressing." (Many visits to France over the years have failed to turn up this latter substance there, however.) As my gastronomic horizons expanded, "salad" came to include the while-you-wait "house salad" that comes with dinner at middle-class restaurants across the country.

Then there's the kind of salad that isn't "before dinner"; it is dinner: You know, the grilled chicken Caesar and its legions, including the steak salad. There's the potato salad; pasta salad; shrimp, crab, and even lobster salad, as well as "seafood salad," which isn't quite any of the foregoing, although there is a family resemblance. There's even the German "sausage salad" (Wurstsalat) dimly remembered from my student days in the Rhineland.

How can they all be salad? What is the point of commonality here?

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces salad to the late 14th century. The English, it seems, borrowed the term from Old French. The French borrowed it from the Latin salata, short for herba salata, salted vegetables, or vegetables seasoned with brine.

So the essence of salad, etymologically speaking, would be some form of dressing or pickling plus some form of vegetables – not necessarily lettuce. Those of you of the "just a few lemon wedges on the side, please" school of dressings may be in trouble in the salad department. And you with the sirloin strips across your greens – don't forget the balsamic vinaigrette, or maybe creamy peppercorn.

Suddenly, potato salad and another staple of cookouts and summer dining, three-bean salad, make sense as full-fledged members of the salad family.

And coleslaw takes its place there, too, as more than just an afterthought at clambakes and barbecues. It's not "cold" anything, although it has often been misheard, and misspelled, that way over the years. It's a pretty straightforward borrowing of the Dutch term that means simply "cabbage salad." (The Dutch sla means salad, which turns out to be a pretty international word across many Western languages.)

We live in an age of fusion cuisine, or maybe just confusion. One food type – or maybe I should say food format – is continually morphing into another. Thus we have hamburgers with no bun but also Caesar salad in a wrap. The traditional cooked breakfast of the English-speaking world has been reduced to various forms of "breakfast sandwich." Presumably this is to allow drivers to eat with one hand as they use the other to text their friends with traffic updates and such.

In the midst of this gastronomic confusion, it's good to know that a salad is still worth its salt.

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