“You ain’t gonna order anything else besides that salad?…”
“Salad is not dinner…”
“That ain’t no real food…”
“(moaning in disgust) you’re making a salad for (insert any family event)…”
“Well, you do what you want, but I don’t want that rabbit food…”
The implications of these quotes, and tons of others, is that somehow, salads are unreal, not filling enough, and not fun to eat. Ironically in the black community, we talk about fried meats, processed restaurant food, and man-made dairy (think government cheese) as the “real food”.
Now, I recognize that in making fun of my experiences, there are concrete reasons why this pervasive negative connotation with salad across the Black American community — and American culture as a whole.
Black American & American History with Processed Foods
It’s well known in American history and Black American history specifically, that our current diet was passed down as survival techniques from our enslaved ancestors. As slaves, we didn’t have access to the healthy vegetation we helped cultivate. Instead, we were given the foods that slave owners found inedible and we had to make it last and useful.
In 2021, Black Americans have about 6 or 7 generations between us and our enslaved ancestors. (To understand how close that is, my father was raised by my great-great grandfather who was ~2 years out of slavery). Of those 6 -7 generations since, exactly half were spent in segregation, where Black people certainly did not have the luxury to prioritize their health over survival.
Our ancestors obviously accomplished and even surpassed the goal of survival. Learning to preserve our food with salt and making delicious recipes out of otherwise horrendous scraps has kept us alive AND has transformed American culinary history by inventing soul food.
Couple this culinary experience of Black Americans with the advent of processed foods into the general American diet in the 1910s, and we have a full picture as to why our appreciation for processed foods endure. Food manufacturers found ways to cheapen the food production process and enhance long-term food storage. The common American household adopted this new food method for a myriad of reasons. It fed and supported the WWI and WWII efforts, it supported those who were short on time or money because people had to work 40+ hours a week, it also became a cultural symbol of the feminist movement as more women tried to spend less time in the kitchen making everything from scratch, and it supported Americans through the great depression when more food had to spread with less money. While this revolution has it’s obvious perks, the downside was the deprioritization of the nutritional value of whole foods.
Poverty & Vegetables
These two concurrent cultural happenings in America across the decades have unfortunately transformed into something hideous, where processed foods are the norm. Fast food restaurants are cheaper food options and are littered across every town. For many impoverished Americans, this unfortunately means the majority of their diets are ladened with less than quality foods. Many of these processed foods are cheaper than buying whole vegetables, beans, meats, and fruits. So even if one saw the nutritional benefit of moving away from processed foods, their pocketbook or timelines may not allow it since fresh food naturally spoils quicker. As processed food developed, vegetables became this unhealthful, untasty side dish out of a can or a side dish that is ladened with meats & things that are less than useful for our diet.
How I Unlearned The Negative Connotation with the Word Salad
Winter 2008-2009, I traveled to Paris on a study abroad trip with my university to study globalization and immigration in France. I was able to spend time with cultures from across the globe who found themselves in a predominantly white culinary culture that seems antithetical to their own. I broke bread with Arab, African, and Asian communities and saw how people cheaply, and deliciously, made vegetables and various iterations of delicious salads. I also saw how this was in direct opposition to the dairy, meat, and bread culture of Parisian cuisine. I recall being God-tired of fresh baguette, croissants, and bread sandwiches with butter as the spread. So these fresh veggie culinary experiences were welcome
At a Lebanese restaurant not far from the Champs-Élysées, we spent lunch with the Lebanese Ambassador to France. Over fun conversations of immigration policy, the waiter placed 5 to 10 small bowls of colorful dishes in front of us.
One of them was Fattoush Salad. It was my first taste of this staple Lebanese dish. It has very common, yet FRESH ingredients — tomatoes, romaine lettuce, radishes, and cucumber. But what made it a little more fun than your average Romaine-lettuce based salad was the addition of well-seasoned pita bread and a variety of fresh herbs like fresh flat-leaf parsley and mint.
Salatet Malfouf was another dish placed in front of us. It is a green cabbage salad made with fresh (not dried) mint, flat-leaf parsley, dill, cabbage, oils, aromatics, and the ever unique Zaatar. As a newbie to this culture, Zaatar was new to my palate and my lexicon. If you’ve never experience Zaatar before, Suzy Karadsheh of The Mediterranean Dish describes it as, “an aromatic blend of earthy and citrus undertones…it includes: High quality, fragrant French wild thyme, oregano, toasted sesame seeds (as opposed to the standard white)…”.
We also had a sweet marinated red cabbage salad that completely took me off my feet as that was the first time I’d ever had a salad that resembled a dessert!
These are just a few examples of the dishes we had. But what revolutionized my thinking of a ‘salad’ is that these were presented to me in small bowls as an accompaniment to the main entrees. These various salads were meant to be combined, toyed with, and eaten alongside all of the main dishes to enhance the flavor of the meat. So if you may not be a fan of ordering salad at a restaurant, with this method, you NATURALLY eat more veggies alongside your main dish because the goal of those veggies is to please, and not punish. It’s meant to make your entree more special.
Many years, countries, and cultures later, this lesson has been cemented in my head. For example:
In Italy, prosciutto e melone on top of arugula is a common and easy salad that one can have as an appetizer or main dish. The sweetness of the melon and well-sliced prosciutto make the addition of the arugula painless.
In Palestine, a pomegranate, feta, and couscous salad combines tastes that typically aren’t put together in western cultures. It makes for a protein-rich dish that’s also fresh and delicious.
In Kenya, their mango, beet, & cucumber salad is one-of-a-kind! If you’ve never had mango from Kenya — it’s a wild and orgasmic experience. And trust me, you will eat this salad alongside your freshly caught and fried fish.
No longer do I think of salad as flavorless iceberg lettuce with dry veggies and some ranch dressing on top. Salads really are a statement of how well you can cook and how creative you can be.
Alexiaa Jordan is a Cyber Security Consultant with JustOne Solutions specializing in the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC). Her portfolio also includes DNS security, telecommunication security and election security. She holds a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University in international economics, security studies, and Portuguese; her bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in molecular and cellular biology, global studies, and Swahili. She enjoys cooking, hosting dinner parties and spending time with the Food Editor, Stephanie Eyocko.