A clear definition of ‘salad’ is not easily tossed off

The first English recipe for a salad, from 1425, directs the chef to assemble 14 vegetables and herbs. How did that evolve to fruit salad, or tuna?

The most successful plant in my garden is Aegopodium podagraria, otherwise known as goutweed. It simply appeared and I can’t get rid of it, so every spring I resolve to eat it. There is a decided dearth of online goutweed recipes, but gardening blogs often identify it as a potherb. This year I decided to figure out what a potherb is, and the answer sheds light on a question that has puzzled cooks and philosophers in equal measure: What exactly is a salad?

A potherb is a green leafy vegetable that you cook before eating. Though today we think of herbs as plants whose leaves are used, sparingly, to flavor food, here herb is employed in its botanical sense: “a seed-producing ... [plant] that does not develop persistent woody tissue but dies down at the end of a growing season,” as defined by Merriam-Webster. 

For the gourmets of the Renaissance, lettuce was the classic herb. It was not a potherb, though, but a salad herb. Salad derives from the Latin word for “salt,” sal. Ancient Romans ate many vegetables as salata (“salted things”) – raw, and seasoned with oil, vinegar, and salt. Salad herbs are thus the opposite of potherbs, not cooked, but eaten raw, and this is (usually) still a defining feature of the dishes we call salads today.

The first English recipe for a salad (1425) directs the chef to assemble 14 kinds of raw vegetables and herbs, including parsley, sage, leeks, purslane, and fennel; to tear the leaves into small pieces; and to “mix them well” with oil, vinegar, and salt. It might seem that we’ve got a definition – a salad consists of raw leaves, torn into small pieces, tossed together, and covered with dressing.

What about fruit salad, though? Tuna salad? My favorite salad as a kid, made of marshmallows, canned pineapple, and Jell-o? Salad seems to be what philosophers call a cluster concept: one defined by a “list of criteria, such that no one of these criteria is either necessary or sufficient for membership.” We can make a list of things that usually characterize salads – they contain leafy greens or other raw vegetables or fruit, their contents are cut up into roughly bite-size pieces, and they are dressed, mixed together, and eaten cold or at room temperature. None of these are necessary to make a salad, though, and none of these always make a salad. Tuna salad might consist of fish, mayonnaise, and mustard, satisfying the “small pieces,” “dressing,” and “eaten cold” components, but having no vegetables at all. Jell-o salad has “fruit,” “small pieces,” and “eaten cold,” but it doesn’t have dressing or vegetables and is only debatably raw.

As for goutweed, as I rediscover every year, it’s not very good – as a potherb or in salad! 

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