News of the upcoming Caesar Salad Competition reminded me of this, and, probably more so, the Caesar salad I had yesterday.
The October / November 2009 issue of My Table contained a brief but enlightening article by Paula Murphy who interviewed Carla Cardini, the granddaughter of the inventor of the Caesar Salad. Her grandfather was Alessandro Cardini, his brother Cesare; Alex and Caesar. It was the latter of the two whose Anglicized name has long adorned the dish and whose likeness has been plastered on millions of salad dressing bottles over the years.
It is fairly well known that the Caesar Salad was invented in Tijuana by Italian immigrants during the 1920s. According to Cardini it was her grandfather who initially created the dish. The original name was not Caesar Salad, either. In the article she relates:
“The original name was the Aviator’s Salad. Alex Cardini, my grandfather, was a pilot for the Italian Air Force during World War I before he moved to Tijuana to join my great-uncle Caesar. Remember, it was Prohibition, and Tijuana was where people went to party. Caesar’s Place, my great-uncle’s bar and restaurant, was very popular. After a long night of drinking and missing curfew, a group of Rockwell Field Air Force pilots woke up at Caesar’s, and what Alex made for them for breakfast that morning is what we know today as Caesar Salad. That day he called it the Aviator’s Salad in honor of his flying buddies, but as the salad gained popularity with visitors from Southern California it evolved into the Caesar Salad. ‘Let’s go to Caesar’s and have that salad …’”
After the article appeared, I talked with Cardini at the annual Caesar Salad Competition. Her family still regularly makes Caesar salad at home. She said the original version of the Caesar salad did not contain olive oil, anchovies or lemon juice, and used whole romaine leaves. It was a much different salad that was goes by that moniker today, and different from other versions that claim to be the “original recipe.”
Olive oil would have been the first choice for an Italian to use, but it was unobtainable in Tijuana in the 1920s, at least when the salad was first made. So, a fairly neutral oil like corn oil was used instead. The slight taste of anchovies was found in the Worcestershire sauce that was used in their place. Those bottles provided another readily available ingredient. Lemons are not terribly popular in Mexico; limes are. It was lime juice that was used in the first Caesar Salads. In Mexico the word for lime is limon. When the recipe was transcribed for Americans, they thought limon was lemon, and so the substitution was made.
Alex Cardini stayed in Mexico and remained a restaurateur, eventually moving to Mexico City. His brother, Caesar, the owner of the restaurant established a patent on the dressing in 1948, and created a company in California to sell it. That “company was sold in the 1990s, but it is still Caesar’s face on the label and the recipe he originally bottled.”
When I talked with Cardini, she expressed surprise that the Caesar Salad could be considered Italian or Italian-American. Though the ingredients that have long been commonplace for the Caesar Salad – olive oil, anchovies and lemon plus the Romaine lettuce – are frequently used in Italian cooking, it is most likely Americans’ love for the salad that has caused it to become a near fixture on Italian menus in this country. Caesar Salads are found on all types of restaurants and are a steakhouse staple, too.
The fact that it shares a name with one of the most famous Italians ever, Julius Caesar, makes the connection even easier for diners and restaurateurs at Italian restaurants. Though it might not be Italian at all that it is served at Italian-themed restaurants is not necessarily a bad thing, quite the contrary, in my opinion.
This is one of the many interesting vignettes found in The Antipasto to the Zabaglione – The Story of Italian Restaurants in America. And, the annual Caesar Salad Competition will be held on the evening of October 21 at the Four Seasons Hotel.