How iceberg lettuce entered American culture

The easiest way to pit iceberg lettuce is to hit the head firmly, core side down, against the kitchen counter. The force dislocates the core from the tight leaf structure, and with a quick twist, it comes out right away.

America’s relationship with iceberg lettuce may have been this simple – and satisfying – but in recent years the iceberg’s reputation has faded under nutritional and environmental scrutiny. On the flip side, iceberg recipes keep popping up online and in cookbooks; they are transmitted, exchanged and precious. And at some point, iceberg lettuce became a signifier of taste, class and values: deficient for some, but irreplaceable for others.

The cultivar was introduced in 1894 by the W. Atlee Burpee Company. Its compact and sturdy head allowed California growers to ship iceberg lettuce across the country, first packaged in ice and then in refrigerated railcars. (While most sources attribute the name of lettuce to its frozen shipping method, the name predates the iceberg’s commercial success. Most likely inspiration: lettuce. “glossy white color and crunchy texture. “)

In the 1930s, just as grocery chains were starting to proliferate and the first serial product refrigerators were installed in American homes, the California-grown iceberg has become America’s de facto lettuce. By the time Steve Henson started selling Hidden Valley Ranch in the mid-1950s, Americans were eating 14 pounds of lettuce (not just iceberg, but it topped the category) per capita each year, up from just over 4 pounds in 1919.

“Iceberg was part of this new system that has shifted from local food production to what we have now. It’s a fascinating piece of the puzzle, ”says Twilight Greenaway, who covers food and agriculture as the editor of Civilian eats.

Iceberg fits perfectly into the country’s increasingly industrialized food system. It is grown in large monocultures which destroy the soil and require all kinds of chemicals to support a robust harvest. Iceberg heads contain 96 percent water by volume, and the crop needs extensive irrigation, often from endangered water sources, as well as constant refrigeration after harvest.

“There is so much garbage in the system,” says Greenaway. “Lettuce in the field is two to three times the size of what you get in a store. [picking alongside specialized trucks] reach the center, remove the head and pack it in the truck. . . If you walk past these fields in the Salinas Valley, where they cut lettuce, there are these huge piles of leftover lettuce scraps. Maybe a quarter of what is grown is eaten. “

The iceberg’s environmental impact is compounded by the fact that it is not particularly nutritious. (Neither do cucumbers, but I haven’t seen any to come down pickle industry.) Occasionally add E. coli the fear and decades-long slide of romaine to leading lettuce status, and it looks like the iceberg’s demise is imminent. Perhaps the iceberg’s worst sin, however, is that it’s boring: the pale green filling of salad bars, hospital platters, and uninspired weekday meals.

In 2018, writer Helen Rosner came to defending the iceberg in The New Yorker, counter food snobs and a long list of detractors (including Craig Claiborne and Alice Waters) and advocate for its place in the foodie fridge. Indeed, millions of Americans continue to show their approval for the iceberg. Even after the advent of bagged leaf lettuce salads in the early 1990s, the inauguration of a rocket lover president in 2008, and the years of kale salad, the iceberg remains one of the most consumed varieties of lettuce in the country. Last year alone, growers in California, Arizona and Florida produced nearly 2.25 billion pounds Things.

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My grandmother Joanne grew up a few miles from the iceberg lettuce farms in Belle Glade, Florida, a town in western Palm Beach County, where farmers still grow lettuce from September through May. As a child, Joanne’s family ate simple iceberg salads more nights than not, and she still court in her kitchen.

This winter, Joanne showed me how to make coleslaw with iceberg, diced Florida avocado (that would once come from my great-grandmother’s garden), sweet onion, mayonnaise, lots of black pepper and red wine vinegar. Another perennial family favorite is the Cuban American Salad “1905” of the Columbia Restaurant (so popular that the restaurant made the name a trademark) in which ham, Swiss cheese, olives, tomato, celery, and garlic and oregano vinaigrette mingle with crunchy lettuce. In these salads, the watery crunch of the iceberg acts as a palate cleanser, bulldozing through the oily and tangy flavors.

“In the salad world, it’s associated with incredibly flavorful and robust dressings.” says Carla Lalli Music, cookbook author and host of “Carla’s cooking show“on Patreon.” In an Italian salad with pickled peppers, red onion, and maybe cubes of salami and provolone, there’s so much salty, punchy, and even tangy flavor. It’s the same with an incredibly rich, funky and creamy blue cheese dressing. Iceberg is a foil for all those really tasty additions. It is an important counterweight. “

Lalli Music grew up without an iceberg, eating it mostly crammed into Subway deli sandwiches. Later she fell in love neighborhood salads, which is back in fashion in the delays through an iceberg industry marketing campaign. But on a research trip while working as Shake Shack’s first general manager, she visited Pie ‘N Burger in Pasadena and “watched a hamburger cook take a plate of iceberg, flatten it. with her hand and put it on a burger. It was revealing, “she said. “Since then, that’s what I want on a burger.”

The iceberg slab is resistant to hot sandwich applications, where grated or leaf lettuce wilts “wet”, as Lalli Music explains in a recent fried fish sandwich video. Kale, butter lettuce and mesclun just can’t compete with the crunch of the iceberg. “It’s one of the great textures,” she says.

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“There is no particular prejudice against iceberg lettuce in Chinese-American cuisine,” says Tienlon Ho, co-author of “Mr. Jiu is in Chinatown“, a cookbook that weaves Chinese-American history with stories and recipes from Chef Brandon Jew’s San Francisco restaurant.” Texture and mouthfeel are as much a part of balance as are visual cues, flavor and aroma. “

Sautéed lettuce is one of the best-known iceberg preparations in the Sino-American culinary canon, but “the star child of the iceberg is the squab or the minced duck served in a cup of lettuce,” says Ho. grew out of a whirlwind of influences: tiki restaurants and the Cantonese-American cooks that dominated them, American GIs returning from the Pacific front, the appetizer trends of the 1950s and a constant intercultural exchange Hawaiian and Chinese. “It’s the perfect amalgamation of Sino-American experiments, playing on the idea of ​​what Pacific cuisine was like and what they would actually eat,” says Ho.

“Mr. Jiu’s in Chinatown” includes a recipe for squab in lettuce cups, but no iceberg. As the chef, Brandon “was trying to add more flavor. He ended up using raw radicchio. It’s the same idea of ​​crunchy freshness,” says Ho.

Like the Jews, many Americans have diversified their consumption of green vegetables, if not giving up the iceberg altogether. My parents grow romaine and arugula; Most of the vegetables I buy – cabbage, Swiss chard, watercress, French crisp, spinach and sorrel, to name a few – are from New York’s Union Square Greenmarket. But we still buy icebergs from the supermarket a few times a year, with purpose and maybe a little nostalgia.

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“What else are you going to put in a taco?” It must be an iceberg, ”says Caitlin Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, whose research focuses on class, equality, family life and consumerism. Daniel grew up in Minnesota in a low-income family, and she and her sisters had a soft spot for the iceberg, which, at about a dollar a head, was a mainstay for them. Daniel’s work studies the meaning people bring to food, including how low-income families interpret the cost of groceries based on factors such as needs, nutrition, food waste, preferences. cultural and purchasing habits. While the iceberg was not officially part of his research, I was hoping Daniel could shed light on some of the ways the price of the iceberg contributes to its resilience.

By interviewing low-income families and observing their grocery trips, Daniel discovered that when money is scarce, families avoid buying very perishable products (many tender lettuces become soggy even after a few days); they also tend to shop a lot a month, often walking miles to the cheapest supermarket. “If you want something that lasts, Iceberg isn’t a bad bet,” she says. “It will still be edible after two weeks.”

Daniel also found that many low-income families seem less concerned with nutrient density than a salad’s role in the prototype trio of meat, starch and vegetables. The iceberg satisfies a culturally defined category, although spinach and kale (more expensive) are healthier.

There is also an economic motivation to stick with the familiar. “One thing that stands out clearly among low-income parents is their reluctance to experience something unfamiliar,” she says. “There’s this idea that they’re more culturally conservative or sort of anti-rocket like it’s just beyond them. Or it’s too much candle,” Daniel observed. “Experimentation takes economic freedom, the freedom to waste money on something you might not like. “

Ultimately, Americans eat the iceberg because a lot of people, in all income brackets, actually love it – not to mention all the creamy, salty, and juicy ingredients it can be paired with – and for all kinds of reasons. Things like nutrition, novelty, and flavor are relative values; lettuce scraps look different on the ground than in the fridge or not eaten on a plate. Really, the only simple thing about iceberg lettuce is making it.

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