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?

Staff

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! 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.