Wilted Lettuce Update

The more I seek to uncover the mysterious origins of wilted lettuce salad, the further they disappear into the murky depths of culinary history. Over the weekend, I found a reference to the dish on Thyme for Cooking, a very nice blog with some lovely recipes. Sadly, I’ve mislaid the direct link to the post itself. But the upshot was that Katie, the blog’s author, had included the dish in a list of recipes that she characterized as typical of Midwestern church cookbooks.

“Midwestern!?” I thought. “That can’t be!” I mean, when I see bacon fat and vegetables nestled together in a pot, I assume we have Southern cooking on our hands–a mishmash of African and English food that somehow migrated from black cooks to the poor whites who lived nearby.

So I wrote to Katie to see if she could shed some light on things. Did she know when the wilted lettuce salad recipe first appeared in the church cookbooks she was describing? Would she have any clue about the dish’s origins?

Katie wrote back quickly and said she’s posed my question to her mother. According to Katie’s mom, wilted lettuce salad is an ‘old German’ recipe and is a “standard,” traditional among the older people in her home state of Wisconsin and especially the first generation immigrants.

I was in shock. My ten years in Madison, where those immigrants did not typically live, did not prepare me for this. And yet, it might make sense. Growing up, I’d always heard from my grandfather that one of my Appalachian ancestors had come from Germany–so perhaps this “Southern” dish came from there. But I still don’t know.

And there’s another twist: James Beard’s American Cookery, which I should have checked in the first place, calls wilted lettuce salad “the oldest and probably most functional of salads” (p. 39). And he offers an Italian version made with dandelion greens.

The plot thickens.

Wilted Lettuce Salad

I just sent in my monthly column for my (Atlanta) neighborhood newsletter, The Leafletanother excuse for neglecting this poor blog. In it, I offered a recipe for wilted lettuce salad, one of those old-fashioned dishes that flies in the face of modern sensibilities. It’s basically hot bacon fat poured over fresh lettuce.

What puzzles me now is where the heck this recipe came from. I had thought, given the bacon fat, that it originated in southern Appalachia–from some woman like my grandmother who needed to spruce up the spring lettuce, looked at the bacon drippings in the jar next to the stove, and thought it would be a good combination. But in poking around on the Internet, I’ve found it mentioned from folks who’d eaten it in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma.

I’ll just have to keep looking. I wonder if they teach these kinds of things in cooking school?

Wilted Lettuce Salad

For two people: Tear 2 – 3 cups Romaine lettuce into one to two-inch pieces, including spine. Slice two scallions (include some of the green section.) Place in serving bowls. Fry four pieces of bacon in skillet until very crisp. Remove bacon from skillet and place on papertowels to drain. Drizzle hot bacon fat over lettuce, stirring frequently, to coat lightly. Salt generously. Top with crumbled bacon and serve immediately.

Variation: Add ¼ cup vinegar and 2 tbps. sugar to bacon fat. Heatuntil mixture just reaches the boil and pour over lettuce.

Hack, hack

No, that is not the sound of my chopping onions with a dull knife. Nor is it a sign that I’m taking up a new form of writing. Instead, it’s the sound that’s permeating the Wise household as I type this.

Fred has been laid up with the flu and I’ve had bronchitis. We hope to return to cooking school again soon!