The rise and fall of the iceberg lettuce

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“Lettuce,” said CD Warner, “is like conversation. It must be fresh and crisp, and so sparkling that you scarcely notice the bitter in it,” which definitely sums up the Iceberg lettuce. However, this once highly popular salad green has seen a dramatic fall in sales over the last couple of decades whilst bagged-leaf varieties and other salad crops such as rocket and watercress have rapidly risen in popularity. What has happened?

Criticised for its apparent lack of nutritional value, the Iceberg is loathed by Mimi Sheraton, the much-respected food writer and restaurant reviewer. Iceberg is regularly declared as dead by other pillars of the food world, has been called the ‘polyester of lettuces’ by my personal hero, John Waters, (who has shown feet of clay here) and became the subject of a good-hearted spat between Alice Waters and Marion Cunningham. This resulted in air-freighted boxes of French lettuces being delivered to Cunningham after she expressed her liking for the Iceberg. Alice Waters has never been known for her timidity when it comes to opinions on food and she believes Iceberg to be plebeian. God love her, but Alice is wrong on this count.

The former New York Times food critic Craig Clairborne detested it with a passion, something the writer Nora Ephron felt moved to comment upon in her book of essays, I Feel Bad About My Neck. In it, she offers us an evolution of lettuce as it happened in NYC culinary circles, kicking off with endive, arugula and radicchio, followed by frisée and what she refers to as the ‘Three M’s’- mesclun, mâche and microgreens. Poor old Iceberg is out in the cold but, as Ephron says, you can’t really discuss the history of lettuce in the last forty years without mentioning the seminal hatred Clairborne nursed in his heart for this jolly little salad green.

So what if Iceberg contains 95-6% water, says David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. A mouthful of water flavoured with fruit juice is close to 100% water, but nobody would advise we stop drinking that on the same basis, would they? What if it contains a fairly low level of nutrients compared to the Holy Kale: just how many food items do you eat a day purely for their exalted goodness? (Deliciously Ella, don’t answer this question- I know what you’ll probably say.) Iceberg does contain vitamin A, potassium and some trace amounts of fibre and protein, and, more importantly, sometimes you want bruising culinary power and at other times you crave subtlety and gentleness. Not all foods have to be kick-ass and the definition of goodness should encompass far more than what something does for us, nutritionally speaking.

 

According to George Ball, chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Co, the Iceberg was the most celebrated of lettuces, once upon a time. His company developed the variety we know today, over a hundred years ago in 1894, from an altogether looser headed lettuce called Batavia. This new ‘tennis ball lettuce’ was once highly prized by President Thomas Jefferson and from the Roaring Twenties onwards, iceberg was seen in every stylish kitchen, becoming a staple in salads served up at Manhattans Stork Club, El Morocco and The Colony. Boasting a gossip columnist under every table, these supper clubs attracted the theatre crowd and an entourage of post show celebrities. Time faded black and white photographs show glamorous starlets and men with fat cigars sitting at a table loaded with platters of club sandwiches, kept crisp by celadon layers of Iceberg. This was the lettuce to the stars in a manner of speaking, served in platters of food designed to soak up the splits of champagne that graced each table and kept temperamental throats and egos lubricated. Ethel Merman, Maurice Chevalier, Errol Flynn and Marilyn Monroe all chowed down on platters of iced shrimp served with Iceberg wedge salad which shattered into icy shards as they bit into it, the buttermilk and ranch dressing served on the side in little pressed glass and silver jugs.

Iceberg might be mostly water but it is not watery. Its thing is crunch, something fans refer to continually although they are undoubtedly waning in number as tastes broaden and the store shelves groan with choice. From the sixties onwards, as foreign travel became desirable and affordable, people wanted to recreate the meals they had sampled abroad and the trend started moving towards other lettuces: the romaine of Caesar salads, the peppery rockets and prickly frisées with their can can frills of pink, purple and cream. It became harder to find Iceberg and even the humble burger saw the Iceberg crunch replaced with baby leafed exotica in all the colours of the rainbow. Cue a waitress in a restaurant recently who told me worriedly that “our BLT’s do contain iceberg” and seemed surprised when I reassured her that, no this was fine and I was not about to fly into a rage fuelled by an absence of whatever exotically-tinted hedgerow clipping is in fashion this month.

Originally this lettuce was a fabulous answer to the frailty of many leafy varieties which curled up and grow slimy at the first hint of cold, freezing, drying or rough-housing in the chain of supply- their life, post picking, can very short. This rendered them hard to transport and so they remained a local resource, hence their increasing popularity and desirability as we began to travel to those markets and see what the locals had easy access to. Iceberg was remarkably tough and was originally transported all over the USA via boxcars meaning that Americans could eat salad lettuce all year round- and in the colder, more northerly states, that was a big deal. Its transport, in refrigerated containers, didn’t give the lettuce its name though: an old Burpees catalogue uses it before refrigerated transport came into vogue.

It is believed that the Romans introduced lettuce to Great Britain, a variant of a plant that grew weed like around the Mediterranean basin and its dried juices were used as a sleep aid by the Elizabethans, then later refined into lactucarium from wild lettuce plants and used throughout World War Two in hospitals as a sedative. The first supplies of Iceberg arrived in Britain during the middle of the 1970’s but it was not until 1984 that our growers overcame environmental challenges to successful cultivation. Marks and Spencer started stocking it in the early eighties, those ‘Prawn Cocktail Years’ of the eponymous book by Simon Hopkinson and Lyndsey Bareham which re-popularised it for the kids of the baby boomers but by 2011, The Telegraph reported its decline with sales falling by 35%.

Iceberg_lettuce_(IJssla_krop)

Talking to Colin Randal, vegetable product manager at Thompson & Morgan (T&M), a large Suffolk based seed and plant merchant, it is clear that Iceberg retains popularity among a core of devotees but, as he says, “Little Gem and ‘midi romaine’ cos are still top of the pile in the lettuce world and Little Gem consistently remains the most popular lettuce variety with gardeners.” Although T&M offer a ‘Crispy Lettuce Mix’ which contains 5 lettuce varieties, many of their customers prefer the oriental mixes of pak choi, mustard, mizuna with added rocket and Greek cress which, like many salad leaf mixes, can take as little as 25 days from sowing to picking. Speed and small leaves rule: it is harder to grow Icebergs on a balcony or small garden. The other advantage to growing your own lettuce is the avoidance of unnecessary waste: according to Love Food, Hate Waste the impact on the environment of throwing away lettuce is 100 times greater than the pack it comes in.

T&M customers still appreciate the crunchy hearts of Iceberg shredded in salads he says, and the variety ‘Lakeland’ and its older relative ‘Webbs Wonderful’ are still popular among gardeners growing from seed but, as he points out, “the choices of icebergs do not change very much. The RHS Iceberg trial in 2014 at Wisley consisted of just 22 varieties and 4 of these ( Lakeland , Challenge, Robinson and Sioux) were in the 1993 and 2001 previous assessment trials.” T&M has an exclusive on ‘Sweet Success’ an Iceberg x Romaine Cos, and ‘Elyburg’ and Iceberg x Gem cos. He adds; “both combine the sweetness and crunch of an iceberg with the dark leaf colour and texture of a Romaine. Neither resemble the Iceberg visually and time will tell if supermarkets introduce these to their shelves.”

Although it might not actually possess “beneficial influences on morals, temperance, and chastity” as claimed by John Evelyn in his 1699 Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, there is much to commend Iceberg, fridge cold and freshly picked, although any seed company that can overcome the problem of a large and hard to use core might have something pretty good on their hands: I have to balance my guilt over throwing out so large a core with my lack of desire to actually do anything with it other than feed it to the local wildfowl who adore it. Although plenty of commentators have accused the Iceberg of being all about shelf life or appearance over taste, that is as true of other lettuce varieties, many of which lack its textural appeal.

Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg
Classic BLT with layers of Iceberg

With a slightly bitter lactic edge and a cool, clean and delicate taste, Iceberg has much to commend it alongside its ability to act as sturdy carrier for some pretty strongly flavoured ingredients such as blue cheese, anchovies and vinegars. When I asked for fans to come forward, there were quite a few among well known food writers and cooks who offered up some great suggestions for using it, both classic and left-field. As Helen Graves, creator of the Peckham Jerk Marinade and the popular Food Stories site said: ” “Yep, like it for a wedge salad or a burger. All about the crunch, innit.” Miss South of the NorthSouthFood website demurred, responding, “I have a great hatred of it. Too wet and too crunchy. But I am a bit of a salad dodger if honest… I am very fond of those soft round butter head lettuce instead. Less aggressively lettucey to me,” and I do get where she is coming from. For me any tendency towards letttucey aggression stems from its larger leaves which are greedy for plate space, providing shelter it would seem for a small child when left unshredded, akin to those Victorian photographs of infants standing underneath tropical vegetation. Helen countered with “yeah there are far better, but I think it has a place. Prawn cocktail, burgers, wedge salad…”

And therein the rub. I detest a burger served with fancy leaves which droop limply when a hot burger patty is dolloped on top: they prove useless at keeping those layers separate- the meat, cheese, pickles, tomato slice/ lettuce and bacon- that make up the classic hot/cold/hot/cold burger build. It has to be the cold tooth crackle of an iceberg leaf for me. And Diana Henry responding to my twitter enquiry agreed, saying “at least it has crunch! And I do quite like it in a burger – the cold crunch against the hot meat.” And if you like American mustard on your burger then its slight bitterness has an affinity with iceberg as does the cold sweetness of seafood which offers another natural pairing.

Jack Monroe is definite in her praise and offers up her usual offbeat take on culinary application, especially for those leftover leaves that tend to sulk unused at the bottom of the salad tray. “I love it. Great snack, wrap, and can bulk out a pesto when it starts to turn…I also love it roasted in a wedge with blue cheese and Caesar dressing and smashed up bacon…” Jack’s Lazarus Pesto recipe seems the best candidate for the iceberg variation and I agree that a bit of char along those leaf edges adds both smokiness and further texture that doesn’t overpower.

It was Diana Henry’s twitter feed which originally prodded me into remembering the essay on the Iceberg by James Villas and its recent fall from grace. After a visit to Lockhart London when it first opened, Henry raved over its deeply southern culinary aesthetic, courtesy of Mississippi born and bred chef, Brad McDonald. There’s a wedge salad with iceberg bacon, chopped egg & buttermilk ranch dressing on the Lockharts menu, as Betty Crocker as it gets which is kind of the point- and a point that not all British patrons of his restaurant have grasped. Recipes such as this are infused with a strong element of nostalgia and they are also about simple ingredients that do not have to cost a lot. Buttermilk dressing has a similar lactic rime and the crunch of the lettuce, served in a large hand-sized wedge, offsets that dairy creaminess perfectly: it gives the iceberg full permission to brag about its sturdy texture. A riff off the classic BLT if you like, this would not work at all with any other lettuce. Comfort food must go forth and comfort and the bitter green of a classic mesclun salad with its brittle and chien French chic would not provide this. However there are other European substitutes- replace the bacon with chorizo, chunks of ferrous morcilla or the Catalonian fuet to really amp up the robustness of a wedge salad.

Chicken Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic
Cobb Salad by stu_spivack/ flickr: CC -ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

The Americans really do know how to handle this lettuce. The Cobb Salad was invented by Robert Cobb, owner of Hollywood’s Brown Derby back in 1937. More of a weighty main course, this plateful of poached chicken breast, avocado, bacon, and tomatoes is set against a backdrop of hearty Iceberg leaves. The Brown Derby created its own old fashioned French dressing to accompany this and when you see the ingredients, it becomes clear that iceberg makes the pefect transportation system for such sharp flavours. The classic Salad Louie, a crab and shrimp confection on a bed of Iceberg, spring onions, dressed with hard boiled egg, served with Louie dressing and lemon wedges is another salad that cannot be bettered by the substitution of a bitter green. There’s the sweet iciness of the shrimp and lettuce, both perfect hot weather ingredients and the leaves are not harmed by the need to keep seafood chilled on sweltering days. Unlike a lot of other foods, its flavour is not lost by chilling, it is just different…clever, huh?

It’s not all bygone ideas either. Rick Bayless, Latina cusine supremo tells us that in Mexico cooks are taking to stirring the lettuce shredded into posole soups and serving it as ensalata compliment to spicy foods, its milkiness acting as salve to overheated mouths. Funnily enough he once complained that Mexican food in the sixties became about “melted cheese on everything, salsa that has no heat, Iceberg lettuce on everything” to appeal to white people although he has clearly had a rethink on Iceberg. Grace Young has also popularised a recipe for it, stir fried with soy, garlic and black pepper which turns the leaves glossy and scented in a manner we are less accustomed to. The Chinese are a nation of people less accustomed to eating their vegetables completely raw, as Young says, and seem to adore the lettuce cooked, either braised or stir fried or used as a wrapper and they are also experts in texture, showing westerners a thing or two about embracing qualities other than what an ingredient simply tastes like.

Brown Derby Old Fashioned French Dressing

The cup of water is optional depending upon the degree of oiliness preferred in the dressing.

1 cup water / 1 cup red wine vinegar / 1 tsp sugar / juice 1/2 lemon / 2 and 1/2 tbs salt / 1 tbs. ground black pepper / 1 tbs. Worcestershire sauce / 1 tsp. English mustard/ 1 bead garlic, chopped / 1 cup olive oil / 2 cups salad oil

Blend together all ingredients except for the oils then add the olive and salad oils and mix well again. Chill. Shake before serving. This dressing keeps well in the refrigerator. Can be made and stored in a 2 quart jar, a Mason one for extra kitschy authenticity.

From the Brown Derby Cook Book by Robert H. Cobb

Image of lettuces by Rasbak 2007

For those of you who are totally in love with lettuce, how about buying some lettuce-ware?

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