When we get into questions of the origins of certain dishes we have left history behind and entered into the murky depths of lore and legend.
Take ye olde Caesar salad. Look this up on the internet you will most likely find out that it was created by Caesar Cardini at his restaurant in Tijuana on a holiday weekend in which he made the devastating discovery that he was out of all supplies except for romaine lettuce, eggs, lemons, garlic, olive oil, a wedge of Romano cheese, and some stale white bread. I call this the “loaves & fishes” story, despite the absence of anchovies which was not an ingredient he approved of.
Who else has claimed inventorship? According to Caesar, his competition consisted of several Hollywood restaurants including Paul’s Duck Press and The House of Murphy (where it was known as a Di Cicco salad), and maybe the Brown Derby and Chasen’s. Then there were also all the busboys and waiters he trained to make the salad tableside on that fateful day, in 1924 (or, by other accounts, in 1913, 1919, 1921, 1926, or 1927) who lodged claims as the inventors.
A strong inventorship claim was presented by Caesar’s brother, Alexander, in the 1960s. Caesar died in 1956, while running a grocery store in Los Angeles where he produced and bottled Caesar salad dressing. According to Alexander’s son, who ran Cardini’s in Mexico City, the two brothers had developed the salad together in a Tijuana restaurant in their younger days, improvising on a recipe their mother used when they were boys in Italy. In this “Mother’s recipe” account, the salad was initially called “Aviator’s salad” in honor of their customers who were soldiers, sailors, and airmen.
One of the busboys at the old Tijuana place invoked a combination of the “Mother’s recipe” origin myth with “loaves & fishes” (times 2!) in his inventorship claim. His mother was an Italian living in Austria during WWI. Facing food shortages she found herself with eggs, romaine, Parmesan cheese, wine vinegar and olive oil from which she improvised a salad. Her son, Livio Santini, emigrated to Mexico where he got a job working in Caesar Cardini’s restaurant kitchen. Feeling hungry one day, he mixed himself his mother’s salad whereupon a customer came into the kitchen, coveted it, and from there the salad landed on Caesar’s menu and began its upward ascent.
When confused about origins it is always wise to cherchez l’agent de PR, in this case Chet L. Switell. He was the most active public defender of Caesar’s claim as salad creator. Chet also fabricated a legend about the invention of popsicles (orange soda in a paper cup with a spoon in it forgotten outdoors overnight during a sudden freeze). Chet sent out letters to newspaper editors and columnists and succeeded in getting movie stars such as Cary Grant and Irene Dunne to prepare Caesar salads on screen. He claimed that the salad was named and popularized by Wallace Simpson, who frequented the Tijuana restaurant before she became the Duchess of Windsor. However, in a 1952 interview Caesar Cardini said that the salad did not become well-known until 1937 when a Hollywood screenwriter named Manny Wolfe provided the recipe to various restaurants. Or, perhaps it became popular after New York food editors were introduced to it at a special Waldorf-Astoria promotion around 1947.
Next mystery: who added the anchovies?
© Jan Whitaker, 2009