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The Origin of the Caesar Salad

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Italy, the United States, and Mexico can all claim some influence in the creation of the Caesar salad. Of course, the countries themselves had nothing to do with inventing the dish, but a man with connections to all three did. That man is Cesare (Caesar) Cardini.

Caesar salad typically includes romaine lettuce, Parmesan cheese,  croutons, dressing, and black pepper.

Caesar salad typically includes romaine lettuce, Parmesan cheese, croutons, dressing, and black pepper.

Cesare (Caesar) Cardini

Let’s visit Baveno. It’s a beautiful town on the shores of Lake Maggiore in northern Italy. It was here, on February 24th, 1896, that bambino Cardini first saw the light of day. As with so many Italian men in the early 20th century, Caesar emigrated to North America along with three of his brothers.

By 1919, Caesar was in the restaurant business, first in Sacramento and later in San Diego. But soon, Prohibition began to kill the hospitality industry. The solution for Caesar and his brother Alessandro (Alex) was to open a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico where Californians could slake their thirsts and eat Italian food.

Cesare and his brother decided to open a restaurant in Northern Mexico so that they could serve alcohol, which was prohibited in the U.S. at the time.

Cesare and his brother decided to open a restaurant in Northern Mexico so that they could serve alcohol, which was prohibited in the U.S. at the time.

The Caesar Salad Is Born

The business was hugely successful, with Americans crossing the border in droves looking for a few shots of booze. July 4, 1924, America’s Independence Day, fell on a Friday that year. Crowds of people descended on Tijuana to celebrate the national holiday weekend, made much more festive by the easy availability of liquor.

At Caesar’s restaurant, they were doing a roaring trade but, so the story goes, they were running low on supplies. This is when Caesar looked around his kitchen and got creative.

The original restaurant fell on hard times but has been scrubbed clean and reopened as Hotel Caesars.

The original restaurant fell on hard times but has been scrubbed clean and reopened as Hotel Caesars.

He had eggs, garlic, Parmesan cheese, Romaine lettuce, olive oil, and a few other scraps. With the flair of a showman, he descended on customers' tables and before their very eyes improvised what was to become the Caesar salad.

But, maybe others had a hand in helping the legend get started. Alex Cardini, Caesar's brother who was a pilot, is also alleged to be the inventor—he dubbed his creation the Aviator’s salad. He also added anchovies, which his brother did not approve of. There is also the claim that Livio Santini, a young Italian working in the Cardini kitchen, concocted the salad based on a recipe his mother had used.

Despite the alternatives, it’s the Caesar Cardini story that sticks. It’s totally unverifiable, but it’s been told often enough to now carry an air of authenticity. Caesar’s daughter, Rosa Maria, says that’s how the dish was created, and that's a statement that seems to brook no argument.

Caesar salads have become a staple of American cuisine.

Caesar salads have become a staple of American cuisine.

A Local Dish

Word of this delicious combination spread north, and soon, some of Hollywood’s A-list luminaries were descending on Tijuana to try out this new taste sensation; W.C. Fields, Clark Gable, and Jean Harlow are all among the names mentioned.

Famed chef Julia Child remembers going to Caesar’s Restaurant with her parents when she was about nine. In her book, From Julia Child’s Kitchen, she wrote "They were so excited when big jolly Caesar himself came to the table to make the salad, which had already been written up and talked about everywhere. And it was dramatic, I remember most clearly the eggs going in, and how he tossed the leaves so it looked like a wave turning over." But there were no anchovies.

Slowly, the dish made its way across America, and in 1953, it received one of the highest accolades possible when it was described as “the greatest recipe to originate in the Americas in 50 years” by the International Society of Epicures in Paris. Clearly, these arbiters of gastronomic excellence had yet to savour the delights of a Coney Island hot dog. Despite such lofty praise, the Caesar salad did not really catch on until the 1970s.

Is Caesar Salad Healthy?

Nutritionists are constantly telling us we have to eat more dark green, leafy vegetables. This has led to the growth in sales of kale in recent years. I can confidently predict that kale will lose its popularity for the simple reason that it’s horrible. Remember, you read it here last.

Many establishments serving Caesar salad only use the inner leaves of Romaine lettuce, thereby depriving customers of the most nutritious outer, green leaves. The darker leaves get more sunlight and that leads to increased folate, vitamins C and K, potassium, iron, beta carotene, and other goodies.

The lettuce leaves on their own are fine, but who’s going to eat that? What makes Caesar salad so yummy is the dressing, and that’s where the trouble lies. Here’s nutritionist Robin Miller: "A traditional Caesar salad has 470 calories, 40 grams of fat (nine grams of which are saturated), and 1,070 milligrams of sodium." She adds that, in the context of being served a Caesar salad in a movie theatre, "You’re almost better off with buttered popcorn and chocolate."

You can eat a Caesar salad and say, ‘Wow, I ate so healthy today.’ You forget there was a quarter-cup of oil in there, and all the calories are from fat. So it’s better if you eat a grilled chicken breast, some steamed brown rice, and a little salad with balsamic vinegar on top.

— Chef Wolfgang Puck

The Tableside Caesar

I had my first Caesar salad in the town of Chilliwack, British Columbia. It was the same day that Mount St. Helens erupted in May 1980, although history does not record whether or not the two events are linked.

The suitably liveried waiter arrived at the table with a large wooden bowl. He scrubbed the inside with fresh garlic and whipped up a dressing with crushed anchovies, Dijon mustard, raw egg yolk, and olive oil. The ripped-up Romaine was tossed, the salad plated, croutons added, and then Reggiano Parmigiano was grated over the dish.

Hundreds of Caesar salads later, there has never been one to match my first. Every roadhouse, gastropub, and diner now serves a version of the salad. The dressing comes from a bottle, the croutons from a box, and the Parmesan cheese is rarely the real McCoy.

Perhaps some restaurants still provide the culinary choreography of a Caesar salad made beside the table, but I suspect it’s only in those places that are now outside the income bracket of an elderly writer.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 1948, Cardini patented his Caesar dressing and started selling it in bottles. It is still available, although the Cardini family is no longer involved.
  • Romaine lettuce was rarely seen in North American restaurants or supermarkets until the 1990s, as flavourless, watery iceberg lettuce held 95 percent of the market.
  • The great Romaine lettuce recall of 2018 in North America came after five deaths caused by E. coli contamination. It seems a lettuce farm in California was drawing water from an irrigation channel that was downstream from a cattle feedlot. Now, who could possibly foresee that that might be a problem?

Sources

  • “The Caesar Salad Was Invented in Mexico. Surprised?” Alison Spiegel, Huffington Post, November 3, 2015.
  • “Caesar Cardini of Caesar Salad Fame.” Thekitchenproject.com, undated.
  • “In Julia Child’s Kitchen.” Lori Lynn, Tastewiththeeyes.com, August 2, 2012.
  • “The Surprising Truth About Caesar Salad.” L. Sasha Gora, BBC Travel, May 22, 2019.
  • “The Caesar Salad Is Not an American Creation.” Noelle Talmon, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, December 6, 2018.
  • “Caesar Salad: The Truth Behind the Calories; The Recipe for a Better Dressing.” Robin Miller, The Food Network, undated.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor