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Culinary Curiosities: Mexican Caesar Salad

If you add anchovies to your Caesar salad, you’re not following the founder’s recipe, but rather his brothers.

The Fourth of July, the quintessential American holiday, made for baseball, hot dogs apple pie and … Caesar salad? Yes. This iconic salad shares a birthday with the good old U.S. of A. But it wasn’t invented in America, or even Italy, as you might guess from its royal sounding name. No, we owe our thanks to a town just south of the border in Mexico, and to a creative Italian-American named Caesar Cardini.

The year was 1924 and it was a busy July 4 in Tijuana. Caesar Cardini’s restaurant was slammed, packed with Americans flocking across the border to celebrate without the gloomy restriction of Prohibition. Business was so brisk that the kitchen began to run low on food. Cardini, thinking quickly, decided to serve a salad with what he had on hand, which turned out to be Romaine, bread, Parmesan, garlic, mustard, white wine vinegar, olive oil, Worcestershire, and lemon, or, more likely, lime. Assuring his customers that he would make something delicious for them, he made the salad tableside, with great flair, tossing the leaves gently and serving them whole, arranged on a plate with stems out, for the diners to eat with their fingers.

It was an instant hit. Wealthy tourists, politicians and Hollywood royalty such as Clarke Gable, Charlie Chaplin, Jean Harlowe and Mae West visited Caesar’s in Tijuana for his eponymous salad. In 1948 Cardini patented his dressing recipe, but not the name of the salad, which was ubiquitous by then. When Cardini died in 1956, his daughter Rosa, who had helped him bottle and sell his dressing, took over and built an extremely successful salad dressing empire. Today the T. Marzetti Company owns the Cardini dressings, and the original Caesar is still a bestseller.

Many other people connected to Cardini have claimed to be the true inventor of the Caesar salad. Cardini’s brother, Alex, said he was the one to first make the salad in 1926 for a group of hungover aviators from the nearby air base in San Diego. The hard-partying airmen needed something to eat before heading back to base. A sympathetic Alex Cardini, who had been an Italian pilot during World War I, made a version with anchovies and called it the “aviator’s salad.” He claimed his brother stole the idea and named the salad after himself. Caesar denied Alex’s story, and, more importantly, denounced the addition of anchovies to the salad, insisting that Worcestershire provided a faint fishy tang that was more than adequate.

But it wasn’t just Caesar and Alex who fought over the origins of the salad. Paul Maggoria, a partner of Caesar Cardini’s and also a veteran of the Italian Air Force, said he was the one who made the “aviator’s salad” for the visiting San Diego airmen in 1927. And Livio Santini, who was an 18-year-old cook in Caesar Cardini’s kitchen in 1924, insisted that he made it based on a recipe that his mother, Beatriz Santini, made called “hard times salad.” Santini told the story of how she made it in an Austrian refugee camp after the first World War when food was scarce and they were lucky to have even a single egg as a source of protein.

So, who to believe? Well, you might ask Julia Child, who dined at Cardini’s restaurant as a child with her parents in the 1920s. In her book, published in 1975, “From Julia Child’s Kitchen,” she remembered how Cardini himself brought the cart to their table to make the salad, recalling with special delight how he broke two coddled eggs over the leaves to make the creamy dressing. Child consulted with Rosa Cardini about the recipe to include in her cookbook. Rosa vigorously maintained the integrity of the recipe (no anchovies!) as well as her father’s role as the inventor.

As for how we got to chopped Romaine rather than the whole, crisp leaves Cardini once served, credit (or blame) may be due to Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee who married the British King Edward VIII, who abdicated his throne. It was said that she adored Caesar’s salad so much she introduced it to European chefs so they could properly make it for her. She was far too much of a lady, however, to eat with her fingers, so she used a knife and fork to cut the leaves instead.

Whether it’s by fingers or fork, a fresh Caesar salad is a thing of beauty. And it’s not that difficult—and much more tasty—to make it from scratch.  Whether you toss whole leaves or shred them, whether you add anchovies or not, consider celebrating the Fourth of July with a Caesar salad. And maybe add an Aviation cocktail as a nod to Prohibition, the Cardinis, and the flying aces of World War I. 

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