Written by 02:14 World

Developing Your Taste

This week, the Caesar salad celebrated its 100th birthday. I hadn’t ever considered the age of the Caesar before reading the Times article on its origins, but I think I would have assumed it was born in the 1970s, maybe in a steakhouse in San Francisco. So I was surprised to learn that the American menu mainstay was, according to a new book, invented in Tijuana in 1924 by a charismatic Italian restaurateur named Cesare Cardini who prepared the salad in a theatrical tableside performance that enchanted the glamorous Americans who, during Prohibition, streamed into Mexico to drink, smoke and revel. (The exact details of the origin story are the subject of some dispute among historians.)

I have, for what feels like 100 years now, been trying to replicate at home the Caesar dressing found at a popular Manhattan restaurant from which I used to get a salad every single day, until I realized I was going to have to dip into my 401(k) if I didn’t figure out an alternative. I’ve meticulously titrated the dressing’s ingredients in my kitchen laboratory, increasing oil and reducing acid, doubling the Parmesan and tripling the Dijon. I’ve experimented with MSG and even, in a brief moment of delirium, created my own dried anchovy powder to sprinkle on top. The Caesar salads I’ve created are fine, maybe even good, but they’re not the same as the desk lunches of my obsession.

In honor of the Caesar’s centennial, I brought my beloved restaurant salad to Sam Sifton, the founding editor of NYT Cooking and the most thoughtful home chef I know, to see if he could give me pointers for recreating it. He had some tips — try Worcestershire instead of anchovies, grind the Parmesan in a food processor, add more black pepper than I might think prudent.

But then he suggested, in the nicest way possible (I think), that my goal of trying to reproduce this restaurant’s salad was never going to lead to satisfaction. Why try so hard to recreate something that already exists when I could spend my time making my own version, or making something else entirely? This dressing came from a big kitchen and was made in batches vast enough to feed hordes of Midtown office workers. Cooking at home, I’d have none of those constraints and could create something excellent according to my own standards.

I felt a little foolish after talking to Sam, like a child who can’t entertain that there might be foods they’d enjoy besides hot dogs and buttered noodles. Why was I so determined to replicate this salad? Why couldn’t I just let it be a thing I liked, and knew where to get, without needing to harness it? And how good was it really? This was a takeout salad I usually ate mindlessly, and in a hurry, at my desk. In the bustle of a stressful work day, a salad that under other conditions might be just decent can be transporting simply because it’s providing sustenance.

When I asked Pati Jinich, the writer of the Times story on the Caesar’s 100th birthday, why she thought this salad from Tijuana became such a global phenomenon, she said it had as much to do with the excitement of anything-goes, Prohibition-era Tijuana and the charming theatricality of Cesare Cardini as the salad itself. “It was the moment, the man and the dish,” she said. People liked the salad, sure, but what they really liked, what really made it special, was the experience of being in Cardini’s checkered-floor restaurant when he wheeled over his fresh ingredients and whipped up the salad in a big wooden bowl.

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Last modified: 7 July 2024
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