About ten years ago, Tom and I decided to go out to dinner for Valentine's Day. We selected a fancy-schmancy restaurant located in what has in recent years become The Peabody Hotel.
I first learned about the Peabody in Memphis. That's where the first Peabody Hotel originated and it's located near Beale Street. However, it seems the Peabody's claim to fame amongst tourists and guests alike is the ducks. Every day, twice a day, they let the Peabody ducks out of their Peabody Palace Cages and march them from their domicile down a red carpet to a large fountain in the lobby where they frolic for several hours until they are herded back up the red carpet to their "home." People come from far and wide to watch these ducks make the trip twice daily.
I mention this extravaganza for two reasons. One, because we lived on a farm and raised a few ducks and two geese. Have you heard the euphemism, "loose as a goose"? It also applies to ducks, but apparently there isn't a similarly descriptive word that rhymes with duck. Without getting too graphic, let me just say that ducks and geese are not the least bit embarrassed or reserved when it comes to eliminating their own excrement. They are happy to waddle up and down that red carpet, swim in the ornate fountain or walk across a driveway from their pond on our property and let loose a very loose one, if you know what I mean. They don't stop. They don't hesitate. They just keep on walking. Second, I'm glad the hotel we chose for our Valentine's Day dinner was not the Peabody at the time, since I was already subjected to goose and duck behavior on a daily basis.
The point of all this is not ducks or duck excrement. The point is Caesar Salad. I know, it's a bit much to put both of those subjects in the same sentence.
So, we made our reservations at this fancy-schmancy restaurant in the fancy-schmancy hotel where we also spent the night because we knew we'd be drinking champagne and we didn't want to drive home after drinking. And, when the time came, we dressed up in our finest. We left our jeans, boots and sweatshirts home. We made our way to the lobby and headed down a dimly lit, plushly carpeted hallway passed an ornate but empty bar to the restaurant. We were greeted at the entryway of the restaurant by a nicely suited Maitre'D and seated at a small table surrounded by other small tables.
Tom had called the restaurant over a week in advance to be certain they stocked a specific champagne, but after being seated we were informed that they had never stocked that specific champagne. One demerit.
We ordered an alternative, but inferior, champagne which was served with unnecessary but extensive pomp and circumstance, and after a few sips our server approached to take our order for dinner. We would, of course, start with a Caesar Salad. I don't even remember what we ordered for our main course.
You see, now I'm starting to get uppity. I love Caesar Salad. I've eaten Caesar Salad at the restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico where the Caesar Salad was created. And I've enjoyed many versions of it, though not veering significantly from the original, prepared and served table-side at several wonderful restaurants on both coasts.
So what version of Caesar Salad were we served at the fancy-schmancy? First of all, here is what a Caesar Salad looks like. Embed the image in your memory because you will see an altered version later, when I get all uppity in your face.....
Beautiful, crisp romaine lettuce dressed with an authentic Caesar dressing and crisp homemade croutons, sprinkled with a little more grated Parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper. Oh. My. God. A salad that combines sour, salty, tart, garlicky and crunchy all in one bite.
What we were served was a small "bread cup" in which 2 whole romaine leaves, marginally dressed with some sort of mayonnaise-based dressing, stood leaning against each other. Ladies and gentleman....your Caesar Salad is served.
Now, I have to say that I honestly give chefs a lot of leeway to inject their own creativity into traditional dishes. I love creative food. What I don't appreciate is a cheap-ass rip-off.
I'm ashamed to say, we made a bit of a scene. What transpired was "are you kidding me?" and "that is NOT a Caesar Salad in any way, shape or form" and "not only that, but you assured me that you stocked a champagne you NEVER stocked" and "I'm not staying for dinner and I'm not paying for this faux salad", yada, yada, yada. We paid for the champagne and left. We ate our Valentine's Day dinner at a pizzeria about a block away. A leisurely dinner of homemade pizza and several glasses of a decent red wine was just what the doctor ordered.
Okay, so I'm getting to my point, albeit a not so direct route. Yes, I acknowledge that I am a Caesar Salad snob. But you are invited to my house to taste my Caesar Salad and I defy you not to become a CS snob as well.
To my point, sort of....my father-in-law has carried on my late mother-in-law's tradition of providing me with copies of all of the local or semi-local magazines: The 501 (the number designating the area code for our little part of the world), Icon (a magazine specifically dedicated to Conway, Arkansas), and Women's Inc, a magazine for and about women in central Arkansas, but mostly in Conway, Arkansas.
This afternoon, while my soup was simmering, I sat down and thumbed through three magazines my father-in-law brought last weekend when he came for dinner. I was flipping through Women's Inc. when I came upon a recipe for Caesar Salad written by a local "chef" and here is where I got my back up and got all uppity. This is the photo of the so-called Caesar Salad....
Source: Women's Inc Magazine
In my full-on uppity-ness, THIS IS NOT A CAESAR SALAD!
- Caesar Salad is made with romaine lettuce. The lettuce in the photo is iceburg lettuce. Not even close!
- You do not EVER put tomatoes on Caesar Salad. Croutons...yes. Tomatoes....never.
- Nor would you EVER, EVER, EVER sprinkle a Caesar salad with sliced black olives. EVER.
There are five basic balanced flavors to Caesar Salad: garlic (usually pulverized before adding other ingredients), anchovies (saltiness and a slight sea essence), lemon juice (necessary acid to balance the pungent garlic flavor and heaviness of the anchovies), Parmesan cheese (adds a pungent earthy flavor) and olive oil (adds a subtle nutty flavor and emulsifies all the other ingredients).
While I understand food styling, shouldn't we be able to expect, at the very least, a somewhat honest rendition of the final dish? Shouldn't readers be able to discern from the photo what their finished dish should look like?
I know. This is so darn nit-picky, but you just don't reinvent a tradition. I think Jim Croce wrote a song about exactly that:
"You don't tug on superman's cape.
You don't spit into the wind.
You don't pull the mask off the old lone ranger and
You don't mess around with Jim...."
And you don't screw with the recipe for a decent Caesar Salad.