Caesar salads are everywhere these days. Even where there are just a couple of salad choices, Caesar salad is usually one of the choices. Dining in an Italian restaurant without being able to get Caesar salad is almost unthinkable.
But Caesar salad doesn’t go back to Tuscan hills through generations of Italian families. It doesn’t even go back beyond 1900. It’s a baby among so-called traditional salads, but it feels like it’s been around forever.
What is Caesar salad?
The Caesar salad is a kind of garden salad. It’s based on romaine lettuce, garlic, and croutons, tossed with a dressing made with olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, and raw egg. Sometimes it’s tossed together at tableside for a dramatic flair. This is still the classic Caesar salad today.
Beyond that, there are a few basic variations. The most common version adds in grated Parmesan cheese and bacon bits. Black pepper is pretty common. Sometimes the croutons are dressed up, and sometimes the only garlic in the salad is in the croutons.
The chicken Caesar is a very popular version of the classic. However, the only thing that’s different from any other basic variation of a Caesar salad is that a grilled and sliced chicken breast is added on top. If it’s hot, it’s added at the last minute. There’s also shrimp and steak versions of the Caesar salad. There’s even an anchovie version, although Caesar Cardini really hated the idea of anchovies in his salad.
Where was Caesar salad first served?
There’s no question that Caesar salad was first served at Caesar Cardini’s restaurant in Tijuana. That’s confirmed by Julia Child, who remembered having eaten a Caesar salad at that restaurant back when she was a child in the 1920s.
Why Tijuana? Well, this was in 1924, and Prohibition was still in force. Restaurant owner Caesar Cardini was an Italian immigrant, and in Italy, meals are supposed to be accompanied by good wine. So even though Cardini lived in San Diego, he opened his restaurant in Tijuana.
How was Caesar salad invented?
As the story goes, it was the Fourth of July weekend. It was extremely busy, and the restaurant had run short of supplies.
Someone in the restaurant had the idea. Maybe it was Caesar Cardini himself, maybe it was his brother Alex (who called it “aviator’s salad”), maybe it was his business partner Paul Maggiora (who also called it “aviator’s salad”) or maybe it was someone on Cardini’s staff. Livio Santini, who worked at the restaurant, claimed it was based on a recipe from his mother, and that Cardini claimed it as his own.
According to the main story, it was Cardini himself who tossed the salad at tableside for the very first time. The rest is history.
Bowing to popular demand, Cardini started selling the dressing unofficially in 1938. His customers would bring in empty wine bottles, and he’d fill them with his famous dressing. He didn’t bottle it himself until 1948, when Caesar salad became a huge food fad.
It’s been on sale ever since. You can still find Cardini’s Caesar dressing for sale today.
By 1946, the Caesar salad was appearing on Los Angeles restaurant menus. By the 1950s, it had spread across America. By then, the Caesar salad was appearing in American and Italian restaurants everywhere. However, this classic “Italian” salad is one hundred percent American!