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.