At certain large coffee chains, if you examine your vast cardboard vessel, you will find a small printed rubric. It usually runs along these lines: “Beware. The beverage you are about to enjoy may be hot.” For a long time, I thought this combination of words – with its jargon, Americanisms, palpable untruths, and flawed hope all wrapped in pusillanimous disclaimer – was the most depressing in the wide world of food. But now, after much painful research, I can reveal another, more venerable, entirely British construction with an even greater ability to suck the joy out of dinner, and it is this: “serve with a crisp, green salad.”
Probably since Elizabeth David first plied the pen, the Crisp Green Salad has been the default side dish of the English middle classes for half the year. A Crisp Green Salad is made in an olive wood bowl you brought back from that lovely fortnight in the Dordogne, which must never – never, mark you – be washed. Many will tell you, with smugness that borders on incitement to violence, that the oils soak into the wood and build up flavours over the years – a ludicrous and unhygienic falsehood. In fact, the only reason not to wash your bowl regularly is that it will rot away… as most civilisations discovered shortly before they evolved clay pots.
Green salads are and always were horrid. Torn foliage (no knife must touch the leaves lest they “bruise” in some way known to chefs but completely incomprehensible to botanists) is tossed in an oil and vinegar dressing composed to an ancient recipe, oft enshrined in a poem or printed on a tea towel and cleaved to by the family with ferret-eyed fundamentalist fervour. The beslimed leaves are impossible to load on to a fork and must be folded in such a way that they can be posted into the mouth leaving a grease-trail over the chin. Once inside, the process of assimilating would be familiar to any ruminant: a long chewing to extract the minimal dietary benefits from the dreary cud.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Though we all have programmed into our DNA the well-meaning advice to eat our greens, the vitamins therein are less than in a bowl of cornflakes. A handful of rocket by the side of a steamed seabass fillet is just as good for you as the same quantity of shredded iceberg in a Double Cheese McKing Whoppa with Bacon™.
Until the 20th century, salad was widely mistrusted. Apart from such proto-Paltrows as the 17th-century writer and gardener John Evelyn, most regarded it as a dangerous “cold” food which could rob all but the strongest men of vital humours. Nobody who wasn’t at the point of starvation would have risked the lives of their children by feeding them raw leaves. They realised almost at an instinctive level that it was wrong for humans to eat salad – what they called “scours” – when cows could do it for you and convert it into delicious meat.
The Americans, though, do salad well: meats, cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, grilled veg, dozens of thick and nourishing dressings and an armoury of stuff to sprinkle on top. My favourite side salad of all is still the wedge of iceberg topped with blue-cheese dressing, crumbled bacon and croutons – classic of the American roadhouse menu – but there’s no shame in a Caesar, a Waldorf, a Cobb or any other robust combination where a bit of actual food is strewn among the greenery.
There’s something desperately northern European Protestant about all this. Serve the average Brit a huge, charred steak – à point at the centre and topped with a slick of melted butter, dripping over the sides and pooling in concupiscent harmony with the juices of the meat – and they just can’t handle it; they order a dish of raw plant matter as an expiatory gesture. It’s not to “cleanse the palate”, to “cut the richness” or to “counterbalance the umami”: it’s a superstitious offering to some angry glutton deity that they hope, against any medical logic, will stave off death.
Which is profoundly ironic because, as Jeffrey Steingarten pointed out in his epoch-making essay “Salad, the Silent Killer”, you’re far more likely to contract food poisoning in a commercial eating environment from poorly washed raw leaves than from a nicely seared chunk of meat.
So what is it for, this knee-jerk side order, this pointless, artless mound of poorly dressed biomass? To me, the Crisp Green Salad is an anti-food, a black hole of joylessness. It is a nothing – it doesn’t fill, it doesn’t delight, it doesn’t nourish. Like the purchased indulgences that Luther would have recognised, all it can offer is momentary and illusory expiation of guilt to the credulous.
Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer