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Hearth to Hearth: Sallets

Hearth to Hearth: Sallets – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – July 2001

One often hears that our ancestors did not eat salads. The remark is all-too often made with a certain amount of scorn and some kind of pity for those poor ignorant souls who didn’t know anything about nutrition and still less about good cooking. Well, it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since earliest times people have harvested wild leafy plants, especially in spring when they were just popping out of the earth. It is thought that people gathered wild celery, chervils, cresses, and parsley, for example. When the agricultural revolution took hold (ca. 8000 BC) and people began to garden, salads were among their first cultivated plants. In pre-Roman times, the English enjoyed beet greens; and then the Roman occupation brought them lettuces, cucumbers, carrots, endive and sorrel. Medieval monks planted them among the herbs in their gardens, and the Renaissance gardeners developed new varieties and produced greater quantities still. The Dutch and later the Italians earned great reputations for their skill as creative growers, and introduced their new hybrids (including salads) to European tables.

And so it should be no surprise that we find salads and salad herbs in early European cookbooks. John Evelyn of London put out an entire book on the subject entitled Acetaria. A Discourse of Sallets, (1699). In 1744 an anonymous Englishman wrote Adam’s Luxury, and Eve’s Cookery; or the Kitchen-Garden display’d, and discussed monthly gardening methods as well as cuisine. For example, he recommended salads made with nasturtium leaves and a variety of Dutch, German, and English lettuces.

Colonists brought their favorite seeds to the New World, established kitchen gardens, and dined on their seasonal treasures. The first German-American herbal by Sauer (recently edited by William Woys Weaver) included thirty-five plants used as salads (first ed. 1777). And English-Americans continued to love a particular salad recipe set out in amusing verse by the English poet Sidney Smith (1796); and occasionally reprinted it in nineteenth-century cookbooks. Smith recommended “all lettuces,” watercress and sorrel, with an assortment of home-grown herbs, and proceded to lay out his famous fine dressing. His concluding comments read as follows:

Oh green and glorious, oh herbaceous treat.
T’would tempt the dying authority to eat.
Backward to earth, he’d turn his weary soul,
And plunge his fingers in the sallad bowl,
Serenely full, the epicure would say,
“Fate Cannot harm me—I have dined today!”

Amelia Simmons, in her American Cookery (1796) advised growing lettuces “of various kinds; the purple spotted leaf is generally the tenderest, and free from bitter—Your taste must guide your market.” And she likewise advised on cucumbers, cabbages, and radishes, being the first American to record (but not introduce) Lowlands slaw, or cole slaw. Indeed, people distinguished between “raw salads” and cooked ones. Nineteenth-century cookbook authors expanded on salads, now bringing into print the “winter salads,” which were served during cold non-gardening months and were made of cold boiled root vegetables with traditional oil and vinegar or the new cooked dressings.

During the late nineteenth century, the concept of salads expanded. At first the most daring addition was the fresh tomato, long suspected by some Americans and Western Europeans as dangerous when eaten raw. Fruit salads followed , and by the end of the century, potato, egg, or chicken salads in fancy presentations flourished. The home economics movement made a specialty of contrived presentations, sometimes in jello, and called them “salad,” but which were a great distance from Sidney Smith’s classic.

The next step is to visualize the proper equipment for salad preparation. Most of it was of the all-purpose sort: cutting boards and knives, bowls and choppers, and colanders. A colonial cook might use a handsome wooden or ceramic bowl if it was part of the household equipment. Buckets and pans for rinsing the leaves were common enough in an early kitchen. Even colanders go back some time, made first of redware or stoneware, later tin or agateware. No special knife was required for harvesting; and a cool place for crisping was often available in root cellars or well houses.

Of special interest to the collector may be the gadgetry for cutting cabbage into slaw, or chopping herbal seasonings, A variety of cutters followed the earlier mandoline, a staple of professional kitchens for some time. They were suited to slicing a variety of salad components: cucumbers, carrots, celery, or tomatoes, and served the renewed fashion in salads that appeared in the late nineteenth century. Cast iron herb “boats” or crushers dated from the early years of that century. These fascinating devices with rolling blades are thought to have originated in China, spread into Europe, and then adopted into America, enabled by lowering costs of iron and expanding cast-iron manufacturing.

Needless to say, green leafy salads are now high fashion, and are commonly offered in a number of versions from chef’s and Greek salads to sweetened deli slaws and fruit “salads.” Perhaps it is our determination to eat “healthy” and for slimness, or the restaurant trick of serving salad first to appease your appetite and give the kitchen time to prepare your entree. We often succumb to crowded time schedules and use bottled dressings—we have lost the sense of making our own, simple though the process is. Starting with good quality oil and vinegars, a la Smith, makes it easy to please yourself, perhaps with a little inspiration from the following recipes. (See at left column)

17th century salad, from John Evelyn’s Acetaria (London, 1699)

Evelyn discussed several suitable salad plants. I have quoted the one on “Sellery” because of its reference to a dressing, and because it exemplifies the international exchange of new plants at that time. As to the classification “hot,” this reflects the humoral system, an early philosophy of health and nutrition in which certain qualities were assigned to foods and they were used appropriately to counter imbalances. And as to the worm: perhaps it was simpler to deal with than modern chemicals.

Sellery, apium Italicum, (and of the Petrofeline Family) was formerly a stranger with us (nor very long since in Italy) is an hot and more generous sort of Macedonian Persley or Smallage. The tender Leaves of the Blancht Stalk do well in our Sallet, as likewise the slices of the whiten’d Stems, which being crimp and short, first peel’d and slit long wise, are eaten with Oyl, Vinegar, Salt, and Peper; and for its high and grateful Taste, is ever plac’d in the middle of the Grand Sallet, at our Great Mens Tables and Praetors Feasts, as the Grace of the whole Board. Caution is to be given of a small red Worm, often lurking in these Stalks, as does the green in Fennil.

Sidney Smith’s An Herb Sallad For The Tavern Bowl, London, 1796

Sidney Smith’s recipe is easily followed verbatim, and is most delectible. Remember that in this period the English (and the colonists) were not yet making mayonnaise or the cooked dressings that would be popular 100 years later. Smith’s dressing may also be used on winter salads, in place of the usual seasoned olive oil [“oil of Lucca”] or melted butter and vinegar.

  1. Use all lettuces, sorrel, salad burnet, tarragon, lovage, shallots, garlic chives, chervil, watercress and parsley.
  2. To make this condiment, your poet begs, the powdered yellow of two hard-boiled eggs.
  3. Two boiled potatoes passed through kitchen sieve, smoothness and softness to the salad give.
  4. Let onion odours lurk within the bowl, and half suspected animate the whole.
  5. Of wondrous mustard add a single spoon. Distrust the condiment that bites too soon. But deem it not, thou man of herbs, a fault, to add a double quantity of salt.
  6. Fourtimes the spoon with oil of Lucca crown, and twice the vinegar procured from town.
  7. Lastly, o’er the flowery compound, toss a magic soupspoon of Anchovy sauce.

Mrs. Rorer offered three salad dressings in her New Cook Book, 1898.
She recommended boiling, skinning and boning the chicken, and discarding fat. The chicken was to be cut into one inch cubes, as was an equal amount of celery, cabbage or an appropriate substitute, and nuts. These were to be kept separate until the moment of dressing and tossing, and then arranging prettily on lettuce leaves for serving. Her dressing was also suggested for potato salads, fish salads, or greens.

Mrs. Rorer’s Chicken Salad, No. 2.

  1. 1 three and a half pound chicken
  2. 3 anchovies, or a teaspoonful of anchovy paste
  3. 1 level teaspoonful of salt
  4. 2 tablespoonfuls of tarragon vinegar
  5. 1 saltspoonful of white pepper or paprika
  6. 1 pint of mayonnaise dressing

Boil and cut the chicken as directed [above]. Cut the anchovies into strips and mix them with the chicken. If you use anchovy paste, mix it with the vinegar and pour it over the chicken. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and stand aside thirty minutes. When ready to serve, mix half the mayonnaise dressing with the chicken; dish it on lettuce leaves, put over the remaining quantity of the dressing and garnish with a tablespoon of capers.

Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is Her web site is

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