“My salad days,” Cleopatra said, recalling her youthful tryst with Caesar, “When I was green in Judgement.” At least that’s how Shakespeare wrote the story. We’ve all got regrets about our salad days. In his book, Jeremiah Tower Cooks, celebrity chef Jeremiah Tower writes, “In the early 1970s at Chez Panisse, I smuggled in seeds from France and had them grown for us, little edible greens and wild greens to make a mix of various leaves….. The concept, now ubiquitous and misunderstood, is one of the major culinary sins that can be laid at my feet.”
I’m not quoting the lamentations of Jeremiah because I believe that he’s “responsible” for either the ubiquity or the mediocrity of processed salad mixes—let’s call this statement an example of “Towering” hyperbole. But I do find Mr. Tower’s assertion interesting, because out of all of the competing claims that I’ve heard over the year by individuals who claim to have “invented” baby salad greens, Mr. Tower is the only one I’ve found who regrets his role, and I find this stance refreshing and provocative.
Now that the largest organic farms are owned by the largest conventional food producers, and organic practices are embraced by farmers of all stripes because they are cost effective and practical, it’s a good time to think back to the “salad days” organic farming. Mesclun salad was a very important product in the development of the organic produce business. The first self-described organic farmers supplied the nascent natural food market with organic alternatives to conventionally grown crops, like organic potatoes, organic tomatoes, organic corn, etc. But once salads of mixed baby greens became available from organic producers everything changed. For several years there were practically no conventionally grown salads in the marketplace competing in the mesclun category at all, so the sudden popularity of baby lettuce salads gave the organic sector a credibility and a profitability earlier than would have otherwise been possible.
The early identification between “organic” and “baby mixed salad greens” was so complete, that now, years after conventionally produced mesclun salads entered the market, I still occasionally hear people talk as though all baby salad green are organic, just because they’re made of baby mixed greens For many consumers the convenience and flavor of baby mixed greens made the premixed salad the first organic crop they ever bought. It’s almost as if mesclun, which was commonly mispronounced as “mescaline”, as if it were the psychotropic alkaloid derived from the peyote cactus, was the entry drug for square shoppers, and heavier crops, like organic meats, came later.
When I was a kid salad meant a wedge of iceberg with a slice of pink tomato and a blob of ranch dressing. I grew up in the hills to the south of Soledad on the Hastings Reserve, which is a biological field station managed by the Museum Of Vertebrate Zoology at the University Of California in Berkeley. Every once in a while my father’s boss, Dr. Frank Pitelka, would visit the reserve and stay at our home. Dr. Pitelka was an erudite and worldly gentleman (read snob) and when he was “at table” he liked to talk about food. It was the early seventies. Dr. Pitelka would sit down for dinner, look at the salad my mom had prepared, and begin to wax misty eyed about this “charming little place on upper Shattuck in Berkeley called Chez Panisse, where they serve the most delicious mesclun salads.”
I know now that the word mesclun comes from the Vulgar Latin verb misculare, meaning to mix thoroughly. Originally mesclun salads were made by farmers, and their seasonably variable composition perfectly reflected a peasant’s “waste not, want not” ethic. The baby lettuce leaves were the young leaves thinned from the rows of lettuces in the cottage garden that were destined to be grown to full size, and the lettuces were augmented with chicories and herbs and edible flowers, like arugula, borage, or cress, which were gathered from the fields beyond the garden gate, where they could be found growing wild in forest and pastures and boggy areas, or sprouting out of rock walls.
Dr. Pitelka didn’t tell me any of this. He said that mesclun salad was a perfectly balanced mix of tastes, textures, and colors. In Berkeley, within the confines of what journalists would one day come to call the “Gourmet Ghetto,” these perfect little salads were causing quite a stir. Salads of baby mixed greens, or the idea of a restaurant as a phenomenon remained abstract notions for me until I was in college myself, at the University Of California in Davis. I got a summer job on a French Intensive Biodynamic farm on Garden Highway, north of Sacramento, owned by a fellow named John Hudspeth who worked at Chez Panisse restaurant.
It was 1979. Jeremiah Tower, who’d once smuggled the exotic mesclun seeds into the U.S., had already left Chez Panisse, but the restaurant was still working to develop local sources for the best ingredients. When there were no local sources for a particular item, Chez Panisse took a leadership role in subsidizing the efforts of gardeners who were willing to try. The farm on Garden Highway was only one of a number of garden projects with a direct link to the restaurant On John’s farm I learned first hand about a world of lettuces I’d never heard of before like Merveille de Quatre Saissons, Rouge d’Hiver and Lollo Rossa. We even grew a lettuce named La Reins de Glace, from the French for “Ice Queen”, which can fairly be described as an iceberg lettuce that speaks French.
Salad greens weren’t the only crops we grew at the farm on Garden Highway, but they were the most salable. We grew hundreds of kinds of crops from purple artichokes to valerian root, but much of what we grew was never harvested or sold. We weren’t peasants, the people who ate at Chez Panisse weren’t peasants, and certainly John Hudspeth, was no peasant; he was a rich party-boy. The first year I worked for John I was told that the farm lost twenty thousand dollars. The second year I was told it lost twenty six thousand dollars. It was clear that all the money the fields generated was being spent painting the fences white and garnishing John’s porno-Provencal lifestyle. It seemed to me that if a person approached organic farming with a production ethic it would be possible to make some real money.
I smile now when I think of the conventional vegetable growers and County Agricultural Agents that I met in the 1970’s who were so dismissive and hostile to the idea of organic farming that they prompted me, and lots of my peers, to keep on trying to make it past our failures just so we could stick our thumbs in their eyes. It soon became apparent that the baby lettuces we were growing for the mesclun salads were perfectly adapted for the sort of small, profitable farms we were trying to create.
Baby lettuces were a quick crop to produce, so the first payoff came quickly for undercapitalized, start-up farmers, and there were many potential crops per season. The oddball import french lettuces that “hippies” like me were growing could be harvested at a young stage, so the tip burn damage that’s always threatens the heart of a of mature lettuce during summer hot spells wasn’t a problem, and the harvest of baby lettuces could be easily cooled for local sales in a horse trough full of clean, cool water. Pest insects didn’t have as long to find the baby lettuce crop and destroy it before harvest the way they did with the full-sized lettuces. Baby lettuces were tolerant of a wide range of environmental conditions, suffered only a minimal amount of disease pressure, and above all, they commanded a premium price from sophisticated customers who were proud to pay.
By contrast, iceberg lettuce needs along the narrow to be grown along the coastal fringe of California where the foggy weather and marine influence provides the iceberg lettuce plant with the cool conditions it needs to achieve it best, most commercial, quality. Because arable land along the coast is limited, land and rent costs are high. And to handle iceberg lettuce successfully after harvest meant you needed to be linked with the huge forced air coolers necessary for chilling the lettuce down to its core for maximum shelf life. Because iceberg lettuce was already an industrial commodity, successfully selling iceberg lettuce meant having established relationships with the large shippers. No hippies allowed!
The fact that conventional lettuce growers didn’t follow sustainable farming practices meant that after years of mono-culture production they had ferocious soil born disease issues to contend with like sclerotinia. When commercial growers said that it wasn’t possible to grow lettuce organically, what they really meant was that THEY couldn’t grow iceberg lettuce organically. The Titans of the fresh produce business didn’t mingle with the chefs who were jaded on iceberg either, so that they had no idea about how to market specialty lettuces. For the big boys in Salinas, iceberg WAS lettuce, and the full sized heads of red leaf -greenleaf-butter-romaine- lettuces passed for specialty lettuces. The heirloom varieties of lettuces that restaurants like Chez Panisse were at best considered a novelty, and at worst a joke, and the people who paid high prices for them were fruitcakes or chumps.
The first customers for baby greens were restauranteurs who were passionate about a return to seasonal values and they made their salads to order. But the market for mesclun salads soon grew beyond the needs of a handful of restaurants and began customers among the restaurant patrons who wanted to make these salads on their own at home. For the convenience of the public, so that a rabbity mesclun consumer wouldn’t have to buy separate heads of half a dozen different baby lettuces, plus a head of chicory, a bunch of arugula etc. the farmers began washing and mixing the salads on the farm and selling the blended greens to the public for a high price.
Consumers swarmed the farmers markets to get the salads they couldn’t find in supermarkets. For the small farms the mesclun boom was a bonanza. But because the salad fad had sprouted in alleys of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto it was also politically suspect. Mesclun, the one time peasant salad inspired by thrift had become upscale fodder for foodies. “Yuppie chow,” sniffed puritan minded, sourpuss lefties. Real proletarians didn’t eat babies. On the right, the old guard of Salinas scowled at the specter of dirty longhairs selling foreign weeds. I was in the middle, and having finally begun making a modest living as an organic salad grower after years in the fields, those were funny times.
As the numbers of farms making salad green increased growers sought to distinguish them selves from each other by increasing the number of ingredients. Isn’t more always better? Customers who weren’t confined to a Mediterranean palate began asking for something different in their salad mixes, hence the introduction of tat-soi, mizuna, and Japanese red mustard. The charm of the tat-soi was a deep green, spatulate leaf that contrasted nicely with the lighter green of the lettuce. Mizuna’s spiky, serrated leaves stood out in sharp contrast to the other salad green, and the Japanese red mustard had leaves that were purple on one side and green on the other. Because we were farmers producing for consumers, not peasants plucking greens from our gardens for subsistence, visual effects that would increase the eye appeal for consumers inevitably took precedence over any notions of a balance of flavors.
At Riverside Farms, where I worked as a managing partner in charge of the salad harvest, we employed over two hundred full time cutters, with twenty more employees mixing salads in the refrigerated packing sheds. Sales climbed from 300 pounds a day to over 30,000 pounds a day. The gourmet ghetto couldn’t consume that much mesclun. We shipped the stuff to New York, Chicago, Boston, Miami and Dallas by the jet load, and so did our competitors. As the sales of pre-washed baby salads took a bite out of iceberg’s market share the large farming corporations from Salinas jumped into the salad game, and they brought their economies of scale with them. The price for salad greens began to go down as the supply increased. Isn’t bigger always better?
A different aesthetic went blending the salads compared to the early days—call it a “production aesthetic”. Mizuna picks quickly so a lot of mizuna found its way into mesclun. Chicory frisee can be harvested in advance, hydro-cooled, and then torn into the mix as needed, so it became an essential ingredient. Bitter radicchio had always been a potential ingredient in seasonal mesclun, but since its brilliant purple leaves help a salad mix sparkle in a plastic bag, and since radicchio is heavy and can be held in cold storage for a long time after harvest, consumers began to find more and more of it in their salads.
Food service giants like Sysco, and Markon, Ready Pac began to compete for the institutional market. The big buyers demanded year around supply, so farms started up winter mesclun production in the low desert valleys and in Mexico. If one salesmen promised the corporate customer “14 different ingredients year round” the competing sales manager offered “16 different kinds of leaves in every bag,” so the lawyers began writing ingredients like baby Red Russian kale into the supply contracts the industrial salad packers made with their growers. Isn’t more always merrier? The constraints of shipping meant that salads needed to last up to twenty days in refrigeration, so a lot of chlorine went into the chilled wash water to eliminate bacteria. The complex chemistry behind successfully embalming baby mixed greens in sealed plastic bags created new restrictions for the recipe of mesclun which put a premium on tough little leaves that could take a lot of handling.
“You buy mesclun and it has bloody kale leaves in it,” thundered Jeremiah Tower in a New York Times interview of April 18, 2001. “What is the most disgusting thing you can eat? It’s a baby kale leaf. Even the cows hate it.” Jeremiah’s right, of course, and I say that as a person that went from picking salad greens in a garden by hand with a few other long-hairs for Chez Panisse back in 1979 to managing hundreds Mexican farm workers on an industrial plantation in 1995 . Yes, at times we made salads with too much mizuna, too much radicchio, and too much baby red Russian kale. But our salads tasted like success and we shipped thousands of cartons of them every day to wholesale buyers all over the America. Thanks to the efforts of a lot of people the simple salad of mixed baby greens that took its cue from the seasons and the native thrift of the Provencal peasantry had been warped into a standardized U.S. commodity.
There’s a tang of irony to Jeremiah Tower’s chagrin over his salad days because in his book California Dish, Mr. Tower also takes credit for the invention of the concept of “California cuisine” The mass produced salads Jeremiah abhors are no longer European, even if the seeds for the lettuces are still imported from France. Whether you enjoy them or not, the bagged salads of mixed baby greens with lettuces, arugula, mizuna, tatsoi and radicchio, are Californian in the purest sense. They are mass produced by huge farms, and California has always been the land of the large scale enterprise. The mixed salads are produced year around without respect for the seasons, and California has been at the forefront of the effort to convince people that we can have an endless summer. The typical industry name for mesclun became “spring mix,” because California worships the freshness of youth. Salad mix is mechanically harvested now to reduce labor costs, and then triple washed in stainless steel factories, before being merchandised nationally using gauzy images of nature and flowers and little farm girls. Pure Hollywood, California uber alles.
In 1996 my partners and I sold the farming corporation that I worked for to one of the biggest Salinas vegetable producers. There was a non-competition clause in the sales contract, and I was pleased to sign it. I had no wish to compete with Salinas any longer. In the space of sixteen years I’d gone from being a farm worker to being a field manager, and finally to being an owner and corporate vice president sitting behind a desk. And I’d grown to dread my job. The non-compete clause would prompt me to start out small again, and the money from the sale would allow me to start a new farm so that I could do things my way, whatever that would be.
As I sat with my partners and the lawyers and signed page after page of documents I thought back to the days when I was just starting out on my organic adventure, fresh with enthusiasm and green of judgement. I was still working at the farm on Garden Highway when I visited my parents one day. Dr. Pitelka was “at table” at their house. Mom had cantaloupe wedges for desert. When Frank went off again about “this perfect little French restaurant where the Charentais melon paired with prosciutto was so divine.” I cut him off.
“They don’t get the very best Charentais melons,” I said.
“Have you ever eaten at Chez Pannise, young man?” he asked.
“No, I haven’t,” I replied, “but I work on a garden that supplies them, and when I see the very best melon, a melon that is beyond compare, in the beauty of its form and the succulence and scent of its flesh, since I’m only a farm worker and I know I can’t afford to eat at Chez, I cut that Charentais open and pop the slices in my mouth until the juice runs down my chin.”
What would Pitelka say about the state of mesclun salad if he were alive today? Yuppie chow no more, baby mixed salad greens can be found at McDonalds. If there’s anything original left about the salads of today that we can trace back to Provence it’s that once again small, fresh lettuce and chicory leaves are being eaten by working class people. There’s no shame in that. But bigger isn’t better. Big is big, small is small, and the best is the best, where ever you find it