Salads of the Stars

And why we need them on this wounded planet

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A DECADE OR SO AGO, I lived alone in the beautiful desert near Palm Springs, in Indian Wells, hoping to reverse what appeared to be a permanent backward slide of sorts. You’ll have to read my book if you want to know more. (I am never writing about THAT part of my life again, unless someone chloroforms me or puts me in a trance.)

While I was there I became very attached to the stark beauty of the rocky San Jacinto and Santa Rosa mountains, the otherworldly cacti, and the arid landscape. I also ate a lot of grapefruit salad with avocado and bitter greens. I was bitter myself and full of guilt about not helping someone I loved, someone I might have saved.

This salad was a small balm (you can find it toward the end of this early issue of the Department of Salad.) Grapefruit is my favorite fruit, and it was everywhere along with oranges and lemons and other citrus, falling out of the trees right outside my windows with a pleasant thud and sometimes rolling into the street.

Aside from eating salad and basking in the desert air and light, I avoided the problems I had gone out to the desert to solve by becoming intensely interested in the glamorous history of Palm Springs, the one of famous singers and American presidents and movie stars.

I was a little bit fixated. But since I’ve always been more interested in food than in movie stars, I’d make regular trips to the Palm Desert library to check out stacks of vintage Palm Springs cookbooks—including sparkling ones from local celebrities of yore like Dinah Shore, Bob Hope, and Frank Sinatra—which I would read in bed and then go to sleep dreaming of the sparkling parties I’d have using these recipes someday, once I had finally found my way back to happiness and the ability to connect to other human beings.

As I’ve said, I was convinced back then that the best way to deal with something painful was to avoid thinking about it. So I also naturally stuffed down my discomfort with the pristine landscape I was living in. Well into the 21st century—long after we’d been warned about climate change—people continue to build houses on the sand and rock and then install traditional American lawns: green grass where it doesn’t want to grow and impatiens that had absolutely no business there (or anywhere, if you ask me). Maintaining this man-made oasis and the ridiculous number of giant green golf courses and swimming pools requires an obscene amount of water.

Not that I bothered to do anything about it. I just continued living in a place where people care more having petunias than about the dying planet, worrying about me, me, me.

And then I ran away.

Which never works. Despite all my long bike rides at the base of the Santa Rosa mountains and my stacks of borrowed cookbooks, I eventually had to face my issues head on.

I’m very happy now, on a personal level, all these years later. Lucky me!

But that may be because I have continued to run away from the fact that the entire planet—not just Palm Springs—is the kind of place where people care more about having inappropriately pristine lawns and everything we want the minute we want it. And I have been one of them.

But shame is a cultural construct that keeps us stuck. Admitting that we are all actively killing the earth is the only way to get unstuck.

I’ll start with me. I don’t want to Tweet about it anymore or have the temerity to hound other people about their part in it. After watching the past few weeks of terrifying hurricanes and fires and floods, I cried in the car this afternoon, when Louis Armstrong’s live version of “What a Wonderful World” came on the radio. And I realized I need to find a way to help save this place, to do my part. I want to encourage my friends and other people where I live to do something—anything—out of love for each other and for this horrible beautiful brutal world, which gives us so much.

Now that the EPA is the EPA again, that’s where I’m starting. It’s not much—and certainly not nearly as much as my young cousin Addie is doing; she just started her first year, along with a lot of other teenagers, in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech. I’m so proud of her—and her generation.

But apparently just panicking over and over and over—or being truly appalled by what we’ve done—has zero effect on the problem. So it’s a start.

This is a salad newsletter, however, and salads are my solace, so I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve turned to the cookbooks of the stars again, for a brief escape. (The only way to face giant problems, I have found, is to allow oneself to be super-avoidant—in spurts.)

Right now, I’m particularly in love with the midcentury British book 282 Ways of Making a Salad a wonderful cult-status cookbook featuring bossy salad instruction (from a time when people ate a lot of tongue and aspic and salad cream) along with salads from celebrities of the era. When I came across a recipe that suggested leaving out celery if it was “not available,” I realized we once all got by just fine in a much smaller, less global food world. It’s hard to imagine ubiquitous celery as a seasonal food.

In a future issue, I’ll be talking to Helen Zaltzman, the English writer and podcaster responsible for The Allusionist, on which she recently read the contents of this salad book. I love her, and I’ve never even met her. I can’t wait.

In the meantime, you and I and the boys in the lab are going to have Gregory Peck’s absolutely crazy and delicious Leaf Lettuce Salad, which is so simple it’s almost ridiculous. (I am not a vegetarian but I’m also not a big meat eater; this salad has bacon as a main ingredient, and I know I don’t need to mention that we should all eat it in moderation for several quite obvious reasons.)

And Walter Pidgeon’s Delmonico salad, which reminds me that Americans—even movie stars!—were once perfectly happy with modest ingredients.

I hope you enjoy these recipes—and that they sweeten reading my bleak (but resolute) feelings about this planet, which I hope we will all learn to treasure more, and soon. Please.

*RECIPE: Gregory Peck’s Leaf Lettuce Salad, from 282 Ways of Making a Salad

Serves 4

NOTE FROM EMILY: As much as I would love to douse bacon and leaf lettuce with butter, I built the salad and poured just two tablespoons of melted butter over it before dressing it lightly with French Dressing (recipe below). This salad is absolutely delicious and would be terrific for breakfast, with an omelet or scrambled eggs.

  • 2 bunches leaf lettuce

  • 1 small onion, sliced very thin (I used a Vidalia)

  • Crisp bacon, about a pound, depending on how much you like bacon

  • salt and pepper

  • French Dressing (recipe below)

Gregory Peck’s Instructions, verbatim:

Two bunches of leaf lettuce, washed carefully, wrapped in linen and chilled. Place crisp leaves together and shred very thin. Take one layer of shredded lettuce, cover with onions sliced thin, salt, pepper, and crisp hot bacon. Shred very fine another layer of lettuce and alternate until bowl is complete. Pour one half cup of hot melted butter over this and use French Dressing. If the ingredients for this dressing are not procurable, use household salad dressing.

*RECIPE: Walter Pidgeon’s Delmonico Salad, from 282 Ways of Making a Salad

Sufficient for 4 people

Note from Emily: You won’t need as much dressing as suggested; I cut it in half, and didn’t use all of it. This recipe would be verbatim if I were able to resist adding my notes on ingredients.

Ratio:

  • 1 cup of cooked fresh peas

  • 1/2 cup of sweet pickles cut fine (I used sweet gherkins and chopped them roughly)

  • 1/2 cup of diced cheese (I used a really good cheddar, and diced it just a bit bigger than the peas)

  • 1/2 cup of diced cucumber (I left the peel on)

  • 1 tomato, diced

  • 1 cup finely cut celery (I diced mine, pretty small)

Mix and Chill. Serve on a crisp bed of lettuce or cos lettuce (Romaine). One cup basic French dressing (recipe below) and 1/2 cup basic mayonnaise. Mix before serving. If the salad dressing ingredients are not procurable, use household salad dressing.

French Dressing

  • 1 clove garlic, grated

  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

  • 2 tablespoons vinegar

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil

  • salt and pepper to taste

Put all of this in a jar with a tight fitting lid and shake until emulsified.

THAT’S IT. WE’RE DONE HERE. Enjoy your belle salades. Midweek, for paid subscribers, we’ll have another delicious bauble from this glorious book. Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to share the Department of Salad: Official Bulletin with your friends and loved ones who deserve it.

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