We have noted in this number of the critical that Sir Henry Thompson was a Victorian whose opinions on cuisine could sound startlingly modern. This observation is nowhere more applicable than to salads. To most Victorians and to many British today, a ‘salad’ is just a dish served cold and nothing more, or just about anything at all.
In this as in many things British and American usage diverge. A recent conversation with our own Curmudgeonly Raconteur brought this discrepancy to the Editor’s mind. The Raconteur recounted his recent participation in a ‘barbecue,’ at which cold ham with Cumberland sauce formed the centerpiece and summer pudding constituted dessert. Now, while either of these offerings would be welcome summer fare, anytime and anywhere, neither of them resembles any variation on barbecue that an American would recognize. In North Carolina, barbecue is slowly simmered pork pulled and bathed in a vinegar base; in Texas, dry rubbed brisket baked to butter, and just about everywhere barbecue can refer to any number of things grilled outdoors over charcoal. Variations on our American understanding of barbecue are almost infinite but do have bounds.
A barbecue or a picnic?
In contemporary Britain it may transpire that ‘barbecue’ is newly synonymous with ‘picnic’ and refers only to dining outdoors. In this we have lost some significant etymological certainty, for until now the term as used in Britain indicated the service of chicken ineptly blasted over high fire to produce burnt skin and raw flesh.
In any event, salad is most welcome during a heatwave at either a barbecue as we formerly knew it or at the picnic it apparently has become, at least in the Home Counties. A particular treat is a salad as defined in the United States and, it turns out, by Sir Henry back in 1880.
Nineteenth century readers boasted attention spans. Trollope alone wrote series of related novels running to many thousand pages, a Dickens novel can hit six hundred of them and other writers poured out many more, pages that is, of astonishing quality as well as intimidating quantity. So forgive us, stand back, and emulate the Victorian reader. Tolerate some long quotations from Sir Henry and disavow yourself of the misconception that all Victorians boiled vegetables to pulp:
“On salad so much has been written, that one might suppose, as of many other culinary productions, that to make a good one was the result of some difficult and complicated process, instead of being simple and easy to a degree. The materials must be secured fresh, are not to be too numerous as possible....” (Food 173)
Sir Henry warns against trusting servants to assemble a salad, and suggests recruiting a family member (! in the Victorian kitchen) “sufficiently interested to regard the process as an exercise of fine art” to
“execute the simple details involved in cross-cutting the lettuce, endive or what not, but two or three times in a roomy salad bowl; mixing one salt-spoonful of salt and half that quantity of pepper in a tablespoon, which is to be filled three times consecutively with the best fresh olive oil, stirring each briskly until the condiments have been thoroughly mixed, and at the same time distributed over the salad.” (Food 173-74)
At this point the Editor has elected to address our readers, not because the break makes particular sense, but rather because the conventional wisdom warns against the fatiguing effect of block quotations on the twenty-first century reader. Sir Henry continues:
“This is next to be tossed thoroughly but lightly, until every portion glistens, scattering meanwhile a little finely chopped fresh tarragon and chervil, with a few atoms of chives over the whole, so that sparkling green particles spot, as with a pattern, every portion of the leafy surface. Lastly, but only immediately before serving, one small tablespoonful of... Italian red wine-vinegar is to be sprinkled over all, followed by another tossing of the salad.” (Food 174)
If this strikes a reader as indistinguishable from the strictures of Jeremiah Tower or Alice Waters and their ‘California cuisine’ then the reader is quick. The Editor would increase the proportion of vinegar and add some prepared mustard to the dressing, but who cares? britishfoodinamerica has busted another misperception about British foodways with our long but luminous citation.
We should note, with Sir Henry, that the amount of seasonings, oil and vinegar anticipates a salad for five or six. (Food 174n) We also should note how unusual it was for a male, other than a professional chef, to demonstrate this kind of practical kitchen work during 1880s Britain; this was the domain of servants. Perhaps, because he was a surgeon, Sir Henry may have ventured into the service world of his kitchen to try his hand, but this of course is irresponsible speculation.
Sir Henry also is good about tomatoes, noting that they may be dressed in a similar manner or added, at the very last minute, to the dressed greens that he describes. Sir Henry, modern man that he (sometimes) was, skinned his tomatoes--by blanching them for thirty seconds. (Food 173, 160)
Sir Henry Thompson, Food and Feeding (London 1880)
Editor’s note: Phoebe Dinsmore, our Salad Writer, has tested this preparation and approves of it although, like the Editor, she likes her vinegar.