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.

3 thoughts on “Wilted Lettuce Update

  1. Yes, this is an old German dish. It’s one of the inedible specialties that my German grandparents in Alma, Wisconsin liked to serve. Their other favorites were German potato salad (so awful that for many years I was afraid to try real potato salad and so didn’t know that I liked it)and pfferneuse (who but the Germans would want cookies with the harsh, biting flavor of pepper). My siblings and I were bitterly disappointed year after year when we’d open a tin of Christmas cookies only to discover that they were all pfferneuse.

  2. I can’t add much in documented history but I can tell you my grandmother who if lived would have been well over one hundred made this salad as did her mother before her I assume. This is a dish that has it’s history soaked steep in the African American culture. The slaves did not have salad dressings and one of the primary ingredient available to them was bacon, bacon fat (grease) and from their own meager gardens lettuce.This was more of a mid morning meal since the bacon was fried quite early before the dawn of day. Any leftovers (bacon and grease) were combine with buttermilk, not cider vinegar or lemon juice like some recipes suggest. Remember buttermilk was an old staple for slaves, since they were not allowed to have “sweet” milk. If prepared properly this is a most delicious salad. The slaves and field workers ate their heaviest meals during the day, since they worked literally from sun up to sun down. I remember my mother talking about my great grand mother serving her husband wilted salad, fried chicken backs and wings, corn, and hot biscuits made from lard. I still have a number of recipes from my grand mother and a 100 year old cast iron dutch oven and several cast iron skillets complete with lids. What wonders never cease!

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