There are no anchovies in Caesar Salad

Julia Child. From Julia Child's Kitchen. Alfred A. Knopf (New York) 1975. pp 431-434

One of my early remembrances of restaurant life was going to Tijuana in 1925 or 1926 with my parents, who were wildly excited that they should finally lunch at Caesar's restaurant. Tijuana, just south of the Mexican border from San Diego, was flourishing then, in the prohibition era. People came down from the Los Angeles area in droves to eat in the restaurants; they drank forbidden beer and cocktails as they toured the bars of the town; they strolled in the flowered patio of Agua Caliente listening to the marimba band, and they gambled wickedly at the casino. Word spread about Tijuana and the good life, and about Caesar Cardini's restaurant, and about Caesar's salad.

My parents, of course, ordered the salad. Caesar himself rolled the big cart up to the table, tossed the romaine in a great wooden bowl, and I wish I could say I remember his every move, but I don't. The only thing I see again clearly is the eggs. I can see him break 2 eggs over that romaine and roll them in, the greens going all creamy as the eggs flowed over them. Two eggs in a salad? Two one-minute coddled eggs? And garlic-flavored croutons, and grated Parmesan cheese? It was a sensation from coast to coast, and there were even rumblings of its success in Europe.

How could a mere salad cause such emotion? But, one remembers, that was way back in 1924, when Caesar Cardini invented it, and it was only in the early twenties that refrigerated transcontinental transportation came into being. Before then, when produce was out of season in the rest of the country, there was no greenery to be had. Before then, too, salads were considered rather exotic, definitely foreign, probably Bolshevist, and, anyway, food only for sissies.

Almost 50 years later, when we decided upon Caesar Salad as one of the events for our program "Kids Want to Cook," I had, as usual, studied all the sources and found, as usual, there was no agreement among any of them. I evolved what most appealed to me but it lacked a certain authenticity, and it had no drama. Then my producer, Ruthie, suggested we try to locate someone from that era who knew Caesar and really knew that salad. Was there anyone? Indeed there was, Ruthie found. Rosa Cardini, his daughter, was living in the Los Angeles area, and was the head of a successful spice and salad dressing business. I had a long Boston-to-Los-Angeles telephone conversation with her, taking copious notes. She was born five years after her father created his masterpiece, she said, but she knew every detail because it had been so much discussed and remembered.

As we went over each move, the salad began to take on life for me. At first, she said, Caesar used only the tender inside leaves, the hearts, of romain, and he served them whole, arranging each portion on a large chilled dinner plate, leaf by leaf; you picked up a leaf by its stem end, and you ate it in your fingers, leaf by leaf. What a great idea! What fun for television. But, she went on, since most Americans do not luck plucking up sauced items with their fingers—witness the reaction to lobster à l'américaine served in the shell—he later changed to bite-sized pieces. Was there anything special in the way he manipulated the salad? Yes, he had a uniquely Caesar way of tossing the salad. In fact, he didn't toss it, he scooped under the leaves to make them turn like a large wave breaking toward him, to prevent those tender shoots of green from bruising. Again, drama, and a new twist for our show. How about anchovies, mustard, herbs, and so forth? No! No anchovies! Caesar never used anything but the best oil, fresh lemons, salt and pepper, a little Worcestershire—that's where those anchovies crept into so many of the recipes I had seen: Worcestershire does have a speck of anchovy. Caesar also insisted on the best and freshest Parmesan, and homemade croutons basted with oil in which fresh garlic had been steeped.

That is the way we did the salad on our television program, and I have always been delighted with it. It is a very simple salad, really, and its beauty rests entirely in the excellence of its ingredients—the best and freshest of everything, from romaine, to oil, eggs, lemons, croutons, garlic and cheese.

Caesar Salad

Hearts of romaine lettuce with oil and lemon, coddled eggs, Parmesan cheese, and garlic croutons

Caesar Cardini

Serve this as a first course, or it could be a main-course luncheon or supper dish followed by or preceded by a terrine or paté and sliced fresh tomatoes. On our television show I didn't have any time to do the croutons Caesar's way, and you may want to follow Rosa's directions for them: cut homemade type unsweetened white bread into half-inch dice and dry out in the oven, basting them as they brown with olive oil in which you have steeped fresh crushed garlic for several days. Except for the croutons, the following recipe duplicates Rosa Cardini's instructions for her father's salad, as she repeated them to me.

The romaine. You want 6 to 8 whole unblemished leaves of romaine, between 3 and 7 inches long, per person. Strip the leaves carefully from the stalks, refrigerate rejects in a plastic bag and reserved for another salad. Wash your Caesar leaves gently, to keep them from breaking, shake dry, and roll loosely in clean towels. Refrigerate until serving time.

The croutons. Purée the garlic into a small heavy bowl, and mash to a smooth paste with a pestle or spoon, adding ¼ teaspoon salt and dribbling in 3 tablespoons of the oil. Strain into a medium-sized frying pan and heat to just warm, add the croutons, toss for about a minute over moderate heat, and turn into a nice serving bowl.

Other preliminiaries. Shortly before serving, squeeze the lemon into a pitcher, boil the eggs exactly 1 minute, grate the cheese into another nice little bowl, and arrange all of these on a tray along with the rest of the olive oil, the croutons, pepper grinder, salt, and Worcestershire. Have large dinner plates chilled, arrange the romaine in the largest salad bowl you can find, and you are ready to go.

Mixing the salad. Prepare to use large rather slow and dramatic gestures for everything you do, as though you were Caesar himself. First pour 4 tablespoons of oil over the romaine and give the leaves 2 rolling tosses—hold salad fork in one hand, spoon in the other, and scoop under the leaves at each side of the bowl, bringing the implements around the edge to meet each other opposite you, then scoop them up toward you in a slow roll, bringing the salad leaves over upon themselves like a large wave breaking toward you; this is to prevent them from bruising as you season them. Sprinkle on ¼ teaspoon of salt, 8 grinds of pepper, 2 more spoonfuls of oil, and give another toss. Pour on the lemon juice, 6 drops of Worcestershire, and break in the eggs. Toss twice, sprinkle on the cheese. Toss once, then sprinkle on the croutons and give two final tosses.

Serving. Arrange the salad rapidly but stylishly leaf by leaf on each large plate, stems facing outward, and a sprinkling of croutons at the side. Guests may eat the salad with their fingers, in the approved and original Caesar manner, or may use knives and forks—which they will need anyway for the croutons.