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Hail Caesar salad! Born 100 years ago in Tijuana

The Caesar salad was born 100 years ago, on July 4, 1924, in Tijuana, Mexico. Above, the grilled romaine Caesar salad at<strong> </strong>Boucherie, a restaurant in uptown New Orleans.
Randy Schmidt
The Caesar salad was born 100 years ago, on July 4, 1924, in Tijuana, Mexico. Above, the grilled romaine Caesar salad at Boucherie, a restaurant in uptown New Orleans.

On the occasion of its 100th birthday, you can find countless versions of the Caesar salad being consumed across the United States. They’re prepared tableside at fine dining restaurants, at the counters of fast casual salad chains and served up at McDonald's with chicken cutlets and cherry tomatoes.

Chef Nathanial Zimet insists on using boquerones in the grilled Caesar salads at his New Orleans restaurant Boucherie. The marinated white Spanish anchovies, he says, are far superior to the salt-cured kind. Romaine spears, he adds, are immune to wilting over flame.

“It’s almost like it locks in the crunch of it,” he says, as the vivid green leaves curl and darken during a quick sear. He arranges the lettuce on a plate, drizzles it with dressing (lemon, garlic, Worcestershire and Tabasco) then generously scatters chunky basil croutons and craggy Parmesan shavings on top.

“Is it cold? No. Is it hot? No. Is it cooked? No. Is it charred? Absolutely.”

Not many classic dishes can claim a specific birthday. But the Caesar salad was created for the very first time on July 4, 1924, in Tijuana, Mexico.

It is not a Mexican salad, says Jeffrey Pilcher. He’s a culinary historian who studies Mexican foodways.

“This is an Italian salad,” Pilcher says. “Caesar Cardini, the inventor of the salad, was an Italian immigrant and there were many Italian immigrants to Mexico.”

Tijuana, built into a bustling border town by a mélange of people, including Mexicans, the Chinese and North Americans, had no distinctive indigenous cuisine in 1924, Pilcher says. During Prohibition, tourists flocked to its spas, bullfights and nightclubs, where they could enjoy perfectly legal cocktails.

Cardini’s original restaurant, on Avenida Revolución in downtown Tijuana, is still open for business. The original Caesar salad remains on the menu. As the story goes, the restaurant was overwhelmed by holiday partiers on that fateful July 4. They gobbled up everything but a few pantry staples: olive oil, Parmesan, egg, Worcestershire sauce and lettuce. Someone, perhaps Cardini or possibly his brother, scraped the provisions together into a big wooden bowl. Caesar’s salad was a hit.

A vegan Caesar salad.
J.M. Hirsch / AP
A vegan Caesar salad.

Over the years, the dish has morphed from what’s now called a “classic Caesar salad” (recipe here from our friends at PBS Food) into what writer Ellen Cushing has derided as “unchecked Caesar-salad fraud” in a very funny recent article in The Atlantic.

“In October,” she writes, “the food magazine Delicious posted a list of “Caesar” recipes that included variations with bacon, maple syrup, and celery; asparagus, fava beans, smoked trout, and dill; and tandoori prawns, prosciutto, kale chips, and mung-bean sprouts. The so-called Caesar at Kitchen Mouse Cafe, in Los Angeles, includes “pickled carrot, radish & coriander seeds, garlicky croutons, crispy oyster mushrooms, lemon dressing.”

But Nathanial Zimet believes the Caesar salad endures precisely because of these liberties, not in spite of them. The Boucherie chef thinks the salad can be a showcase for innovation while remaining rooted in resourcefulness and kitchen creativity. It is, he says, a salad for today. Maybe even for always.

Edited for radio and the web by Jennifer Vanasco.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.