“Salads are supposed by a large class of people to be difficult to prepare; but such is not the case. They are really simple of construction, and one needs only to use a little judgment in their preparation.”
~ Murrey’s Salads and Sauces by Thomas Jefferson Murrey, 1884.

A salad of fresh, tender lettuces is a light, refreshing enhancement to any meal. Today’s high-speed transportation methods and numerous pre-washed lettuce choices allow us to enjoy fresh salads year-round. But during the Victorian era, salads were usually reserved for the upper class. Lettuces were highly perishable and therefore expensive, particularly during the colder months when they were out of season.

Resourceful Victorians got around this obstacle by using hothouses to grow salad greens and other vegetables. By 1900, cities such as Philadelphia and Boston farmed acres of vegetables under glass, including lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers and artichokes. Although the prices were steep, these commercial enterprises allowed well-to-do Americans to serve fresh green salad for lunch or dinner any time of year.

As a result, green salads dressed with vinegar and oil quickly became a fine dining essential throughout the U.S. One of the many French influences on American cuisine, these crisp, leafy greens tossed with a light vinaigrette dressing were often called “French salads” as a way to distinguish them from creamy mayonnaise-based lobster or chicken salads, which were also popular. The French style dressing was a combination of oil, vinegar, mashed egg yolk and a dash of mustard. Sometimes a little sugar was also added, and Philadelphia cooking school instructor Sarah Tyson Rorer suggested tarragon vinegar as a more flavorful substitute for plain vinegar.

Apparently achieving the appropriate balance of dressing ingredients was a source of great controversy during this timeframe. The Germantown Telegraph ran a series of letters, recipes, satire and other culinary opinion about the proper method for dressing lettuce in the late 1860s. And according to cookbook collector Elizabeth Pennell, it was formerly the Philadelphia custom for the husband to shop for the salad and dramatically put it all together at the table. Gentlemen were judged by their salad making skills, particularly the manner of blending the dressing. Eliza Leslie also advised her readers of this tradition, stating that the gentleman was to “mix up the dressing on a separate plate, and then add it to the lettuce, and offer it around, as he choose.”

Today salads are typically served at the beginning of a meal, but in the Victorian era this was not the case. The American Practical Cookery Book (1861) recommended them as a part of the second course, “given with the roast meat; it should be placed fresh upon the table, then removed and dressed by a waiter.” Mrs. Rorer preferred a “simple French dressing for lettuce, served after a hearty meal.” She advised placing the green vegetables for salads in ice water for an hour, then carefully drying them on a towel in order to preserve their freshness and flavor. “Never mix any salad with the dressing until you are ready to serve it,” she added. “Use the coldest of dishes to serve it on, and if garnished properly, it is one of the most attractive and wholesome dishes on the table.”

Celery was another popular vegetable among the elite classes during this timeframe. Today celery is typically reserved for crudité platters or chopped finely to add crunch to chicken or tuna salad, but in the nineteenth century it was considered a high-status food, mainly because it was rather difficult to grow – it had to be blanched, or protected by piles of soil as it grew in order to preserve the whiteness and sweetness of its stalks.

Celery Vases2The Victorians gave celery extra-special treatment, creating distinctive stands or vases in which to serve them. Made of decorated glass or silver, they could be tall and sturdy to hold the celery upright like a bouquet of flowers, or shaped like a low basket or oval “boat” to cradle the celery lying down.

Common celery preparations included stewed, fried, braised or dressed with mayonnaise. According to New York Cooking School instructor Maria Parloa, “celery should be scraped and washed and then put in ice water to be made crisp, at least an hour before it goes on the table.”

Both celery and lettuce were popular items on holiday menus, as evidenced by Germantown resident Cornelius Nolan Weygandt’s diary entry from January 1, 1897, which lists “our own celery” as one of the menu items from his family’s New Year’s Dinner. And referencing a Christmas menu published in the Ladies Home Journal in 1897, Mrs. Rorer noted, “The salad course is no small part of a dinner. If you cannot get lettuce or celery do not object to the inner white portion of a hard head of cabbage. Serve it with French dressing, delicate crackers toasted in the oven, and hot cheese balls.”

There were two types of cheese balls used to garnish salads: one was made from grated cheese mixed with egg (and sometimes breadcrumbs) and spices such as red pepper, paprika or Worcestershire sauce, formed into small balls and then fried in lard or oil. These were served warm on top of a salad, similar to cheese croutons.

The other method was to take a soft cheese, such as Neufchatel or cream cheese, add some grated Parmesan, spices and melted butter, then form into balls the size of an English walnut. These were also placed on top of salad greens, but served cold (kind of like goat cheese rounds are today).

Lettuce salad
(This salad was listed on a Christmas menu featured in the Dec 1897 issue of Ladies Home Journal. It was typical of the green salads that were popular during the Victorian era and would have been served throughout the winter months).

Rub garlic in the dish in which lettuce, with French dressing (without onion) is to be served. Leave no pieces of the garlic – merely rubbing the dish will give flavor enough. The French often use garlic in salads. OR (and this is what Mrs. Henderson advised) use the simple French dressing with onion to mix with the lettuce leaves, and dispense with the garlic. Use the plain or tarragon vinegar. Nasturtium blossoms have a most pleasant piquant flavor, and make a beautiful garnish for a salad.

French Dressing
Ingredients: One table-spoonful of vinegar, three table-spoonfuls of olive-oil, one salt-spoonful of pepper, one salt-spoonful of salt, one tea-spoonful of onion scraped fine. Many use tarragon vinegar, i.e. vinegar in which tarragon has been soaked. Pour the oil, mixed with the pepper and salt, over the salad; mix them together; then add the vinegar and mix again.
(This is the usual mode of mixing the salad; but Mrs. Henderson preferred to mix the pepper and salt, then add the oil and onion, and then the vinegar; and when well mingled, to pour the mixture over the salad, or place the salad over it, and mix all together. She thought it was more evenly distributed in this manner.)Watercress salad w cheese balls2
Both recipes from Practical Cooking, and Dinner Giving (1878) by Mary F. Henderson

Watercress Salad with Cream Cheese Balls

• 1 8 oz. package Neufchatel cheese
• 2 tablespoons grated parmesan
• Dash of red pepper
• ½ teaspoon paprika
• 1 tablespoon melted butter
• ¼ teaspoon salt
Mix all ingredients together thoroughly and form into small balls. Chill in refrigerator on a plate. At serving time arrange watercress or other salad greens in a shallow salad bowl, put the cheese balls over the top, sprinkle with French dressing and serve.

From New Salads for Dinners, Luncheons, Suppers and Receptions (1912) by Sarah Tyson Rorer

The diary of former Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion resident Anna Smith Maxwell (1831-1912), also known as “The First Lady of the House,” contains a number of recipes for salads and dressings, including Salad Dressing (featuring raw eggs, mustard and milk), a newspaper clipping for the satirical poem “Sydney Smith’s* Recipe for Salad Dressing,” and the recipe for Mayonnaise Dressing listed below (another concept borrowed from the French). This would have been combined with any number of ingredients, such as chicken, lobster, celery or tomatoes to make a nice salad suitable for any fine luncheon. An article on “Salad and Salad Making” in an 1898 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine called mayonnaise dressing “a triumph of the culinary art when well made.”

Mayonnaise Dressing
• Two eggs
• Two tablespoonfuls of melted butter
• Three tablespoonfuls of cream (sour cream is the best)

• One quarter of a tablespoonful of mustard
• One half teaspoonful of salt
• One half cupful of vinegar
Beat the eggs, add cream and the melted butter, or oil if preferred, dissolve the mustard in the vinegar and add just as it is and put on the stove. Cook until thick over boiling water, stirring constantly.

* Sydney Smith was the author of several best-selling books, including Salad for the Solitary and Salad for the Social.

From the diary of former Ebenezer Maxwell resident Anna Smith Maxwell

Sources: Murrey’s Salads and Sauces by Thomas Jefferson Murrey, 1884; Mrs. Rorer’s Philadelphia Cook Book: A Manual of Home Economies by Sarah Tyson Rorer, 1886; Savory Suppers and Fashionable Feasts by Susan Williams, 1996; 35 Receipts from the Larder Invaded by William Woys Weaver.