“There was an Old Person of Fife,
Who was greatly disgusted with life;
They sang him a ballad,
and fed him on salad,
Which cured that Old Person of Fife.”
~ Edward Lear, English artist, writer (1812-1888)
Ah, the salad course! It’s my favorite, and, as an American, I prefer to enjoy it before the main course. But, in some countries, especially in Europe, the salad course is served after the main course as a palate cleanser before the cheese course is served.
It is believed that as far back as ancient times, the Romans and Greeks dined on raw vegetables that they dressed with vinegar, oil, and herbs. And, according to the Oxford Companion to Food, the word, “salad” resulted from the progression of first the Latin word, sal, which means “salt”; later the form, salata, which means, “’salted things” referring to a primary ingredient of dressing they used; and then the Old French word, salade; and finally in 14th century emerged the English word, “salad” or sallet, as they said back then.
Every course adds texture and interest to a meal, and this is especially true of the versatile salad. Today, there is a proliferation of salads that are enjoyed in nearly every culture, from the simple green salad served in a multi-course meal to salads substantial enough for a main dish.
The Salad Plate
The salad plate can be round or crescent-shaped. The round plate is smaller than a luncheon or dinner plate and measures anywhere from 7 to 8/12 inches in diameter. If the salad is served as a separate course before or after the main course, it’s placed in the middle of your cover, or place setting; if it’s one of the first courses it might be placed on your charger (decorative service plate), which is removed before the main course is served. If the salad is served with the main course, it will be placed on the salad plate, which is located to the left of your main plate, below the bread and butter plate. This also is where the crescent-shaped plate comes in handy, as it fits snugly around the upper left curve of your round dinner plate.
Salad before the Entrée
In the U.S. and some other countries it is customary to serve the salad course before the entrée, or main course as it is called in Europe, where “entrée” refers to the course prior to the main course. The highly respected food writer, M.F.K. Fisher, suggested that this custom originated in California (apparently following the end of WWII )and that those who lived on the East Coast found it shocking. This Western ritual caught on, however. Detractors claim that the routine was adopted by restaurants to keep their dining guests occupied and uncomplaining while the main course was prepared!
Some medical and health authorities favor the practice of serving the salad before the main course because absent a highly caloric dressing salads are healthy, help to balance the meal and are filling enough to help prevent over-indulging during the main or other courses. Therefore, the salads served first should be light enough to stimulate the appetite and prepare the palate for the next course; for example, they should not contain cheese, which many experts believe is too heavy to serve before the entrée and might compromise the taste and enjoyment of the next course.
Salad after the Entrée
Salads served after the entrée, or main course, function as a palate cleanser, but might include cheese or have cheese on the side, combining the salad and cheese courses. Some believe that serving salad after the meat course slows the rise of blood sugar and aids in digestion.
Salad served as the Entrée (Main Course)
Salads as the entrée are served on a dinner plate, rather than the smaller salad plate. Such salads are more elaborate, and include such popular main-course salads as Cobb, Caesar, Shrimp or Crab Louie, Greek or Niçoise.
Serving the Salad
Often a prearranged salad is served on a plate and placed on the charger or in the center of your place setting, or to the left of your dinner or luncheon plate. If cheese is served with the salad, it will be on a cheese board or platter with a separate knife for each kind of cheese. Either the waiter will pass the cheese board around or the guests will do so themselves, slicing the cheese they prefer and placing a piece or two and any accompanying crackers directly on their salad plates.
In upscale restaurants, if all the guests order the same salad, the waiter will often prepare and serve the salad at the table. This is especially a tradition with Caesar salad. In that case, the server and his or her assistants will serve the salad in plates or bowls at the preparation cart and place one at each guest’s place setting.
Another scenario involves the waiter bringing a salad bowl around and holding it while each guest serves himself, or two waiters will bring around the salad and serve a portion to each guest on her salad plate. In less formal settings, a large bowl of salad will be placed on the table and passed around by the guests, who will serve themselves, either placing a serving of salad on their salad plates, or if there are no salad plates directly on their dinner plates.
The Salad Knife & Fork
In formal settings, as well as many informal meals, a salad knife and fork are included in the place setting. In a casual or everyday family dining setting, the salad knife and fork are eliminated and it is customary, and perfectly acceptable, to use the table knife and luncheon or dinner fork to eat one’s salad.
If You Prefer to Skip the Salad Course
At a large formal or informal meal in a restaurant or banquet hall where there is a prearranged menu, if you find that you prefer to skip a course – because you are full, don’t normally eat certain foods or for any other reason – either tell the waiter quietly and discreetly or simply ignore it if you do not have a chance to signal the waiter. No explanations are necessary.
At a small private dinner at someone’s home, you should make an attempt to try everything. However, if there is butler service and you prefer to skip the salad or other course that is being served, do so politely and graciously, and offer a compliment to the host on another dish.
Until next time,