If there’s one dish that epitomises the 1990s in Australia, my vote goes to the Caesar Salad. It summed up the essential hypocrisy of how we ate back then. Torn between convenience, self-indulgence and health consciousness, we made food choices that we could pretend were good for us. As served in the average café (complete with bacon, fried croutons and creamy dressing) Caesar salad probably had a fat content approximately equivalent to that of a Big Mac. But it was a salad so it had to be healthy, right?
The Caesar Salad took its time getting to us. Most food historians believe it was invented in or around 1924 by the eponymous Caesar Cardini at his hotel and restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. The story goes that he threw the salad together from ingredients he had on hand when a group of guests unexpectedly stayed on and supplies in the pantry were running low. The dish was enthusiastically received by the guests (allegedly Hollywood stars). It became a Californian specialty but took decades to appear beyond the USA’s west coast. However, by the 1950s the Caesar was recognised across the United States.
The original Caesar salad contained Cos lettuce (or Romaine, as it’s known in America), coddled eggs, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, olive oil, freshly grated Parmesan cheese, croutons, salt and pepper. No anchovies, no bacon and certainly no chicken. It was dressed at the table by the chef and was supposed to be eaten with the fingers. Hence the lettuce leaves were left whole and arranged with the stem end pointing outwards.
In 1954, the Courier Mail in Brisbane printed directions for making Caesar Salad, as described by the wife of the United States Ambassador to Italy. (Why she was talking to an Australian paper is unclear.) That recipe was true to Cardini’s original. But an advertisement in the Women’s Weekly in 1960 offered a version that included frozen peas (!) and croutons fried in margarine. Another Weekly recipe in the ‘60s included celery, cucumber and blue cheese. By the late 1970s anchovies seemed to be standard and most recipes included bacon.
The dish popped up more and more on Australian menus during the 1980s and by 1990 was ubiquitous. Most Australian versions of the Caesar Salad used fully cooked egg, rather than the raw or coddled egg that caused the state of California to ban the salad in the late ’90s, for health reasons. The ban was lifted in 1998.
With the big revival in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, the Caesar could be had with chicken, smoked salmon or sliced beef. The egg might be raw, coddled, poached or even hard-boiled and chopped. Almost always, there was bacon, although anchovies were often optional. But we had learned something. The peas, celery and blue cheese were never seen again.
This 1945 recipe uses raw egg, but many versions used a coddled egg – boiled for just one minute.
3 or 4 heads chilled, crisp Romaine (Cos)
2 handfuls crisp croutons (little cubes of fried bread)
6 tablespoons garlic oil (made by steeping garlic cloves in salad oil)
4 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
6 heaped tablespoons grated Parmesan-type cheese
Juice of 3 lemons
Break the Romaine in to a salad bowl; add croutons, oil, seasonings, and cheese. Break the raw egg over the salad, then pour the lemon juice over the egg. Toss all together lightly from the bottom, and serve. Serves 6.
(Adapted from Sunset magazine, March 1945)