The easiest way to eliminate iceberg lettuce is to hit the head firmly, core side down, against the kitchen counter. The force dislocates the core from the tight leaf structure, and with a quick twist, it pops out straight away.
America’s relationship with iceberg lettuce may have been this simple – and satisfying – but in recent years the iceberg’s reputation has weakened under nutritional and environmental scrutiny. On the other hand, iceberg recipes continue to appear online and in cookbooks; they are transmitted, exchanged and precious. And at some point, iceberg lettuce became a signifier of taste, class and values: deficient for some, but irreplaceable for others.
The cultivar was introduced in 1894 by the W. Atlee Burpee Company. Its compact and sturdy head allowed California growers to ship iceberg lettuce across the country, first packaged in ice and then in refrigerated wagons. (While most sources attribute the lettuce’s name to its frozen shipping method, the name predates the iceberg’s commercial success. The most likely inspiration: lettuce. “icy white color and crunchy texture. “)
In the 1930s, just as grocery chains began to proliferate and the first serial product refrigerators were installed in American homes, the iceberg grown in California has de facto become American lettuce. By the time Steve Henson started selling Hidden Valley Ranch in the mid-1950s, Americans were eating 14 pounds of lettuce (not just an iceberg, but it dominated the category) per capita each year, up from just over 4 pounds in 1919.
“Iceberg was part of this new system that made it possible to move from local food production to what we have now. It’s a fascinating piece of the puzzle,” says Twilight Greenaway, who covers food and agriculture as as editor of Civilian food.
Iceberg fits perfectly into the country’s increasingly industrialized food system. It is grown in large monocultures which destroy the soil and require all kinds of chemicals to support a robust harvest. Iceberg heads contain 96% water by volume and the crop needs extensive irrigation, often from endangered water sources, as well as constant refrigeration after harvest.
“There is so much garbage built into the system,” says Greenaway. “Field lettuce is two to three times the size of what you get in a store. [picking alongside specialized trucks] reach the center, remove the head and pack it in the truck … If you go through these fields in the Salinas Valley, where they cut the lettuce, there are these huge piles of lettuce waste left. Maybe a quarter of what is grown is eaten. “
The environmental impact of the iceberg is compounded by the fact that it is not particularly nutritious. (Neither do cucumbers, but I haven’t seen any go down pickle industry.) E. coli scary and the decades-long romaine is becoming the leading lettuce, and it looks like the iceberg’s demise is just around the corner. Perhaps the iceberg’s worst sin, however, is that it’s boring: the pale green filling of salad bars, hospital platters, and uninspired weekday meals.
In 2018, writer Helen Rosner came to defending the iceberg in The New Yorker, counter food snobs and a long list of haters (including Craig Claiborne and Alice Waters) and advocate for its place in the gourmet fridge. Indeed, millions of Americans continue to signal their approval of the iceberg. Even after the advent of bagged leaf lettuce salads in the early 1990s, the inauguration of a rocket loving president in 2008, and the years of the kale salad, the iceberg remains one of the most consumed varieties of lettuce in the country. Last year, growers in California, Arizona and Florida produced nearly 2.25 billion pounds Things.
My grandmother Joanne grew up a few miles from iceberg lettuce farms in Belle Glade, Florida, a town in western Palm Beach County, where farmers still grow lettuce from September through May. As a child, Joanne’s family ate simple iceberg salads more nights than not, and she still court in her kitchen.
This winter, Joanne showed me how to make coleslaw salad with iceberg, diced Florida avocado (which would once come from my great-grandmother’s backyard), sweet onion , mayonnaise, lots of black pepper and red wine vinegar. Another favorite of the Eternal Family is the Cuban American Salad “1905” Columbia Restaurant (so popular the restaurant made it a trademark) in which ham, Swiss cheese, olives, tomatoes, celery, and garlic-oregano vinaigrette mingle with crunchy lettuce . In these salads, the watery crunch of the iceberg acts as a palate cleanser, bulldozing through the oily and tangy flavors.
“In the salad world, it’s associated with incredibly tasty and robust dressings.” says Carla Lalli Music, cookbook author and host of Carla’s Cooking Show on Patreon. “In an Italian salad with pickled peppers, red onion, and maybe cubes of salami and provolone, there’s so much salty, punchy, and even strong flavor. It’s the same with an au dressing. Incredibly rich, funky, and creamy blue cheese. Iceberg is a foil for all those really tasty additions. It’s an important counterbalance. “
Lalli Music grew up neutral on icebergs, eating her mostly crammed into cold-cut Subway sandwiches. Later she fell in love quartered salads, which is back in fashion in the end of August through an iceberg industry marketing campaign. But on a research trip while working as Shake Shack’s first general manager, she visited Pie ‘N Burger in Pasadena and “watched a burger cook pick up a plate of iceberg, l ‘flatten it with her hand and put it on a burger. It was revealing, “she says. “Since then, that’s what I want on a burger.”
The iceberg plate withstands hot sandwich applications, where shredded or leaf lettuce wilts by “wetting”, as Lalli Music explains in a recent fried fish sandwich video. Kale, butter lettuce and mesclun just can’t compete with the crunch of the iceberg. “It’s one of the great textures,” she says.
“There is no particular prejudice against iceberg lettuce in Chinese American cuisine,” says Tienlon Ho, co-author of Mr. Jiu is in Chinatown, a cookbook that combines Chinese-American history with the stories and recipes of Chef Brandon Jew’s San Francisco restaurant. “Texture and mouthfeel are as much a part of balance as visual cues, flavor and aroma.”
Sautéed lettuce is among the most well-known iceberg preparations in the Sino-American culinary canon, but “the flagship model of the iceberg is the ground pigeon or duck served in a cup of lettuce,” says Ho. ” a whirlwind of influences: the tiki restaurants and the Cantonese-American cooks who provided them, American GIs returning from the Pacific front, the appetizer trends of the 1950s, and an ongoing interchange between Hawaiian and Chinese. “It’s the perfect amalgamation of Chinese-Americans experimenting, playing on the idea of what Pacific cuisine was like and what they would actually eat,” Ho says.
Mr. Jiu is in Chinatown includes a recipe for squab in lettuce cups, but no iceberg. As a chef, Brandon “was trying to pack more flavor. He ended up using raw radicchio. It’s the same idea of crunchy freshness, ”says Ho.
Like the Jews, many Americans have diversified their consumption of green vegetables, or even give up the iceberg altogether. My parents cultivate romaine and arugula; Most of the green vegetables I buy – collard greens, Swiss chard, watercress, French crisp, spinach and sorrel, to name a few – come from Union Square Greenmarket in New York City. But we still buy icebergs from the supermarket a few times a year, with purpose and maybe a little nostalgia.
“What else are you going to put in a taco?” It must be an iceberg, ”says Caitlin Daniel, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkeley, whose research focuses on class, equality, family life and consumerism. Daniel grew up in Minnesota in a low-income family, and she and her sisters had a soft spot for the iceberg, which, at about a dollar a head, was a mainstay for them. Daniel’s work studies the meaning people bring to food, including how low-income families interpret the cost of groceries based on factors such as needs, nutrition, food waste, preferences. cultural and purchasing habits. While the iceberg was not officially part of his research, I was hoping Daniel could shed some light on some of the ways the price of the iceberg contributes to its durability.
By surveying low-income families and observing their grocery shopping, Daniel found that when money is tight, families avoid purchasing highly perishable products (many tender lettuces become soggy after even a few days); they also tend to take one big shopping trip per month, often traveling for miles to get to the cheapest supermarket. “If you want something that will last, the iceberg is not a bad bet,” she says. “It will still be edible after two weeks.”
Daniel also found that many low-income families seem less concerned with nutrient density than with a salad’s role in the prototypical trio of meat, starch, and vegetables. Iceberg satisfies a culturally defined category, although spinach and kale (more expensive) are healthier.
There is also an economic motivation to stick with the familiar. “One thing that is clear to low-income parents is their reluctance to experience something that is unfamiliar to them,” she says. “There’s this idea that they’re more culturally conservative or sort of opposed to rocket, like it’s just beyond them. Or it’s too candle-lit,” Daniel observed. “Experimentation takes economic freedom, the freedom to waste money on something you might not like.”
Ultimately, Americans eat the iceberg because a lot of people, in all income brackets, actually love it – not to mention all the creamy, salty, and juicy ingredients it can be paired with – and for all kinds of reasons. Things like nutrition, novelty, and flavor are relative values; lettuce scraps look different on the ground than in the fridge or not eaten on a plate. Really, the only simple thing about iceberg lettuce is making it.
This story was originally posted on Food52.com: How Iceberg Lettuce Made Its Way Into American Culture