Department of Salad: Official Bulletin #8
If salad were a dinosaur. . . we wouldn't be having this conversation, would we?
CHEF SALAD: CHADWICK BOYD
NOT LONG AGO, I got a message from a virtual food acquaintance suggesting that we might be related. He asked me to wire him one million dollars, to be paid back with interest, to help ensure that our mutual ancestral palace in the remote Scottish countryside was not destroyed. I sent the money immediately.
Just kidding. That was someone else.
This particular message was from Chadwick Boyd—a fellow-writer, food columnist (for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), a Hallmark Channel regular (including as a judge on their Christmas Cookie Matchup) and founder of Chadwick Boyd Lifestyle, among many other food-related felicities.
I was initially dubious about our connection, partly because of our divergent lifestyles. Boyd is a bit of a jetsetter (before the pandemic started, he’d just returned from Germany, where he was preaching the biscuit gospel with Carla Hall, his cohost of Biscuit Time). Whereas I, as I may I have mentioned previously and repeatedly, live in a barn in rural NC dairy farmland and have dedicated my remaining years on this planet to salad.
But once we had a Zoom chat, Boyd revealed a devotion to pimiento cheese and celery, and I have to say: that was all the information I needed.
We’re still not sure if we’re actual cousins but after he gave me a beautiful salad recipe that employs celery and riffs on pimiento cheese, I realized that humans can be connected in ways much more powerful than boring genetics (which are the real crapshoot).
Boyd divides his time between New York and Atlanta, but he was raised in Southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware, in a family that grew from southern and Pennsylvania Dutch roots, with “a pure line of farmers on both sides,” he says. He’d begun delving into his ancestry a few years ago, after his maternal, Southern grandmother died. He and a cousin wanted to explore how far and prolific their roots ran in southern Virginia. Which is how he discovered they had genetic material floating around my neck of the woods.
“I connect with my Pennsylvania Dutch roots, but I’m most comfortable with the Southern side of my family,” he says. “I grew up with Southern cooks, but it wasn’t until I actually moved to the South, where I went to college and started my business, that I found my home with food.
“My great-grandfather was a tenant farmer and a preacher who came up to Southeastern Pennsylvania with my great grandmother. The railroad lines come through the west side of Virginia and dump down in Pennsylvania—straight up from Grayson County,” he said.
Grayson County happens to be one of the two counties my hometown, Galax (pop. 6,423), straddles.
“I probably have a million cousins there. If I walked through the middle of town I’d be related to 25 percent of the people. My friend Kathleen Squires said, ‘You should read Emily Nunn’s book.’ And I said, ‘Oh my god, we are so connected in this world through food.’”
That sentiment—food brings us together—has gone out of fashion and it gets dragged a lot lately. But I still love the idea of it so much. Especially if it brings me new friends.
“My family always said, ‘We are not rich in money, but we are rich in food.’ And that was the truth. As a unique child growing up in this gruff family experience, I loved the safety the table brought. Everyone’s identity disappeared and guards went down. It was the only place and time when I heard my grandfathers laugh and saw them smile. Otherwise, it was a hard life.”
Another way Boyd and I are connected: we can both trace our earliest inspiration as cooks to the Betty Crocker Cook Book for Boys and Girls.
“I studied it.” he says. “I begged my mother to let me come home from school—I was a latch-key kid—because I wanted to pore over every single page and illustration. It was my goal to master that. Like the library, the kitchen was my safe haven.”
The difference between Boyd’s and my approach to the Betty Crocker book: I made the rabbit salad (pear for the body, scoop of cottage cheese for the tail, red hots for eyes, and sliced almond ears), played some tennis, read some Nancy Drew, and moved on to being obsessed with my dog. I got distracted!
Boyd, on the other hand, started his own business at the age of 7, selling brownies and fresh lemonade he’d learned from Betty C.
Hence: Chadwick the Jetsetter and Entrepreneur, Emily the Barn-sitter.
Anyway! When it comes to salads, I feel like Boyd got the better upbringing. We had farms and produce stands all around Galax, but above all it was a factory town. My favorite probably came from the Pizza Hut salad bar, a topic I covered in Issue #1 of this newsletter.
But Boyd’s family grew a lot of their food, and his great-grandfather-preacher had a separate garden as part of his ministry, to share vegetables with people who needed them. And you know what that means: exquisite fresh leaf lettuce for salad.
“My Nana always made dinner and had it on the table when my grandfather came home at 5:15,” he says.
“She had this enamel pan and a stainless-steel knife. One of my earliest memories is of her taking that pan out through the back door and through the shed to the garden, where she would take that knife, one handed, and cut green leaf lettuce and cucumbers and whatever was out there, in one motion. And she turned it into salad. Green leaf lettuce, cucumber, maybe tomato, and Viva Italian dressing in the carafe. On Sundays, after church, we always had vegetables, even if it was corn that had been cut off the cob and frozen or some wax beans. They were just a huge part of our life. So it always blows my mind when people say they don’t like vegetables. I don’t get that.
“Plus, I was born in 1971, and in the 80s came the huge shift toward getting everything at the grocery store. My friends thought that’s where food came from. And that is where the world went, and respect for farmers went away, and family farmers had to sell their land to get some money and save themselves from bankruptcy.”
It’s a familiar, tragic story, watching family farms continue to shrink and disappear. And it’s another thing that Boyd and I have in common as people who grew up in farm areas or live in them now: awareness of and respect for farmers.
That’s a big enough connection for me—cousins or not—and an explanation for why vegetables—like salad—are such a big part of our lives.
However, I think Boyd may be even more obsessed than I am. Before he handed over his delicious recipe to me, and gave me instructions on how to assemble it, he pointed out a large piece of art on his wall, which I hadn’t noticed during our Zoom call: a vivid photograph (from a cookbook he worked on with one of his mentors, Sarah Foster) of a leafy green salad.
*RECIPE: Chadwick Boyd’s Shaved Celery Salad with Pimiento Buttermilk Dressing
Serves 6-8 [Editor’s Note: I ate half of this for lunch and the other half for dinner, by myself.]
Who doesn’t love pimiento cheese, really? This recipe celebrates the very best of pimento cheese – with a twist. This is my take on celery sticks stuffed with pimento cheese. But, here, the celery is shaved with a scalpel-sharp vegetable peeler to create a luscious and light bed for all the cheddar cheese, buttermilk, pimientos, and pecans to nestle into. It’s creamy, delicious, and so satisfying. Serve on a white cake plate to show this salad off to your guests—or just to you.
8-10 celery stalks
1⁄4 cup buttermilk
1⁄4 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons pimientos, finely chopped
1⁄2 cup finely grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese
1⁄2 cup finely grated extra-sharp white cheddar cheese
1⁄4 cup fresh red pepper, finely chopped
1⁄4 cup pecans, toasted and coarsely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste
Trim all the leaves off the stalks of the celery. Reserve in a bowl of cold water. Remove the stringy outer skin using a sharp vegetable peeler. Discard. Run the peeler along the cut side of the stalks and thinly shave. Gently pat with a paper towel to remove any excess moisture.
In a shaker, place the buttermilk, mayonnaise, pimientos, and pinch or two of salt and pepper. Shake well. Chill until salad is ready to assemble.
Place the shavings and leaves in a large mixing bowl. Add the cheese, pecans, and red pepper. Toss gently. Season with the salt and black pepper. Transfer to a platter or large serving bowl.
Drizzle with the dressing.
Serve immediately or chill in refrigerator (you can make this a few hours ahead).
CELERY! IT’S ONE OF MY FAVORITE VEGETABLES—the bridesmaid of the kitchen, the Queen of Crunch, and an extremely underappreciated player in the United States. Unlike in Umbria, where there’s a Black Celery festival, or in Great Britain, where my British friends brag about their heritage Fenland Celery, a white winter type that is only available from October through December. Here you rarely see celery salad (or any dish featuring celery as the star) on menus. And do you ever make celery salads at home? (I do; more on that later.)
We limit our ideas about what a salad can be. I recently got a question from a reader asking if I considered chicken salad a salad. I was shocked! It has salad in its name! Of course, it’s salad. (I passive-aggressively reminded this very nice person that I had written about chicken salad in a previous issue and sent her the link with two recipes.)
Please, ask me anything. But remember this: You are allowed to make salad out of absolutely anything you want. The American idea that one must employ leaves, or a certain combination of ingredients, or a “matching” appropriate dressing, or be served cold, have more than 2-3 ingredients, or be made of vegetables at all? It’s absurd.
The leafy assumption is a natural one, though, since the earliest salads appear to have been made from greens and herbs. According to A Book of Salads: The Art of Salad Dressing by Alfred Suzanne, a turn-of-the-century treasure a friend sent me, the word “salad” derives from the Latin “sal” for “salt,” the only condiment that was used in classic times, possibly in the form of brine. Romans were pretty big salad eaters. And there is evidence that the Elizabethans were fond of salad, which I investigated, only to turn up a photograph of a beautiful bowl of herbs and flowers. I have a very hard time buying this, considering the fact that the Elizabethans were a crowd known for their terrible B.O., rotting teeth, and horrifying sanitation system (or lack of one). They’re going to put flowers in their salad? I’ll get back to you on that one.
According to Suzanne, oil-and-vinegar-dressed green salads were in favor in France during the reign of Louis XIV. But James Beard, in his “American Cookery,” points out that the iconic dressed-green-leaves model didn’t really come into play here until the end of the 19th century and really took off in the early 20th century. This was before we lost our minds and started suspending our vegetables in Jell-O.
The Jell-O salad heyday is over for the most part (it’s making a bit of a comeback), but I will defend every American’s right to refer to food that looks like a large translucent plastic paperweight as “a salad” if it’s a salad to them.
Again, for emphasis, you can make a salad out of anything you can eat. However, in the most basic terms, Suzanne (who includes a recipe in his book that begins “Clean a large eel and cut it lengthways to take out the backbone. . .”) classifies salads this way:
Green salads (herbaceous plants).
Other vegetable salads (leguminous plants).
Poultry and game salads.
But why can’t you mix those categories? I feel we are behind with our salads. All around the world, people view them beyond our narrow template. In Catalonia, Xató salad is endive, salt cod, tuna, anchovies, and olives dressed with oil and vinegar, breadcrumbs, hazelnuts, garlic, almonds, and dried peppers. Indonesian Selat Solo is beef tenderloin, onions, soy sauce, vinegar, shallots, cloves, nutmeg, hard-boiled eggs, mayonnaise, and a combination of such vegetables as carrots, lettuce, potatoes, and green beans. And Shalgam, a salad originating in Kazakhstan, is a combo of carrots, bell peppers, radish, onions, and garlic—all grated, then dressed with vinaigrette spiked with cayenne pepper.
We’re going to be talking about the wonderful world of international salads, soon. But for now, I hope you never let anyone or anything—except possibly a fear of the grocery store during the pandemic—stop you from making salad from whatever you like.
Since celery is our topic here, I can tell you that it happens to be the perfect ingredient for the most stress-free salads in the world. I began making my favorite many years ago, after I got my book contract, and promptly invited myself to visit the food writer and entrepreneur Amanda Hesser, in the early days of Food52. The entire operation was still in her apartment, and not only was the place not a madhouse but after the staff had finished up and gone home Amanda made dinner. “Oh, no: I forgot a salad,” she said. And I thought that meant no salad. But she proceeded to make a perfectly wonderful celery salad in about five minutes, with sherry vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, and shaved Parmesan. A delicious wonder. I started making it all the time. Sometimes I’ll do champagne vinegar, sometimes no vinegar at all. And I always collect the leaves to add to salad, because I love their tongue-numbing bitterness. They’re also great in soups.
This salad is a pretty popular one, probably, but if I hadn’t ever thought of it before eating Hesser’s version, maybe you haven’t either. We can’t all be on top of every great salad in the world.
Since then, I’ve devised a celery salad that has a few more elements to it, based on that same simple combo. And since I had sliced up a hell of a lot of celery to make it, I’ve also included a recipe for a Waldorf salad, which I loved as a kid, with all the bells and whistles—grapes, raisins, walnuts, even those disgusting marshmallows—but love even more in its most basic, original form, which is simply celery and apples dressed in mayonnaise and served on lettuce. I’ve added blue cheese.
*RECIPE: Celery Salad with Lemon, Anchovy, Caper dressing
This serves one; adjust as needed.
Tiny pinch of salt
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
Lemon zest (I use about a teaspoon)
1 tablespoon capers, finely chopped
2 large stalks celery, thinly sliced crosswise, at an angle
Small handful of celery leaves
A chunk of parmesan
In a shallow bowl, mash the anchovies together with a tiny pinch of salt, using the back of a spoon.
Place the mash in a jar with a lid, along with the next four ingredients and shake until emulsified.
Pile the celery in a bowl with some celery leaves if you have them (I hope you do), shave a nice number of thin curls of good Parmesan on top (using your potato peeler) drizzle with some of the dressing, and shower with freshly ground black pepper. You can bring it to the table like this, or toss it now, breaking up the Parm so you get a hit of that delicious flavor throughout the salad. Taste and adjust, adding extra dressing if necessary. Feel free to add more Parmesan, too, but you want the celery to be the star.
*RECIPE: Basic Blue Cheese Waldorf
This is a great emergency salad, to pull together quickly with stuff you have on hand. And yes, I do ALWAYS have blue cheese on hand. Roquefort is my pandemic cheese, which just happened. I woke up one morning and I was a passionate Roquefort lover. I don’t bother with the lettuce.
Serves 2 (or three if your friends are wimps)
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced crosswise, at an angle
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, quartered, cored, and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
¼ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup blue cheese
Place the celery, a few celery leaves, and the apples together in a large bowl, sprinkle with the lemon juice, toss.
In a small bowl, mash together the mayonnaise and cheese with a fork; thin with a little buttermilk.
Toss the apples and celery with some of the dressing, to taste (I use about 2/3, but it’s up to you). Season with salt and pepper. You may serve this prettily on lettuce leaves if you’re Martha Stewart. I am not.
I know that people associate pimiento cheese with celery—Chadwick Boyd does, obviously. I do not. But I just this minute had some on celery and it was absolutely perfect. So I’m giving you my recipe for pimiento cheese.
But the spread I love on most on celery is my cream cheese and olives, which also makes a great hors d'oeuvre on thick cucumber rounds, not to mention a delicious sandwich on white toast (cut on the diagonal, crusts trimmed), and a great snack on saltines. So also: see Emily’s Cream Cheese and Olives, below.
(Honestly, I usually eat both spreads on saltines, which are the world’s greatest conveyance invention after the spoon.)
*RECIPE: Emily’s Pimiento cheese
Makes a lot
1 giant (1 lb.) block cheddar cheese, grated (never buy it pre-grated; it’s coated in corn starch or cellulose)
1/2 cup mayonnaise (more if necessary; it’s just to bind)
1 jar (4 oz) pimentos, drained, juice reserved, and finely chopped
lots of black pepper (probably no more than 1/2 teaspoon)
Tabasco sauce, a few shakes
Splash of Worstesterchissenhortenheimer (I’m not looking up the spelling ever again) sauce if you desire.
Place the cheese, mayo, pimentos, some of their juice, pepper, and Tabasco in a bowl and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon to combine. Adjust seasoning to taste. Refrigerate.
NOTE: I usually use about half the pimento juice from the jar. It’s not much. And I probably use more than a half cup of mayo. You don’t want it to be too wet or too dry. It helps to let this sit for a while so the flavors can blossom, before eating. If you put too much pepper in it, it will keep you awake at night.
*RECIPE Emily’s Cream Cheese and Olives
Makes 1 ½ cups
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup coarsely chopped grocery-store stuffed green olives (don’t buy the pre-sliced or pre-chopped kind; I hate those.)
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
2-3 tablespoons of the juice from the olive jar, to thin the mixture.
Place the cream cheese, olives, and mayonnaise in a bowl and blend together, by hand (I use a wooden spoon), thinning it with the olive juice as you go, until smooth. You’ll probably only need 2 tablespoons. Refrigerate until ready to use. I like the consistency better after it is chilled.
THE DEPARTMENT OF SALAD HOLIDAY GIFT LIST: Please, this year, in lieu of giving people in your own life gifts (except for children and the elderly), why not make a donation to No Kid Hungry? Or another hunger organization.
NEXT WEEK: I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen here at the Department of Salad! I have to talk to the boys in the lab. In the meantime, I’m opening a REQUEST LINE (just leave it in comments). If you had, say, a salad in 1993 in Williamsburg, Virginia, at the Williamsburg Inn, but they stopped making it or you can’t find it, I will try to track it down. I’m a reporter, after all. Also feel free to make requests for salads or ingredients you’d like to have us focus on. I’m not sure how long it will take to get to any of this, but if you inspire me I’m a lot faster. See you next week!