Salad is just rubbish, isn’t it? In the past five years I’ve shared a house with two vegans, two vegetarians, and three meat-eaters, and in all that time I’ve had one salad that tasted nice. I keep trying: I use recipes, I use “these vegetables all taste nice” logic, I order meals with salad in restaurants, and it just doesn’t work. I get a perfectly nice pasta dish… that somebody’s left to go cold and manky. Some delightful lettuces and tomato… that someone’s covered with a greasy slick of oil. Chickpeas and lemon and a load of crunchy stuff is still fundamentally going to taste like lemony chickpeas, and one mouthful of lemony chickpeas is enough for me.
Salad is the one food where almost every recipe includes something that you’re supposed to add “for colour”. There’s nothing wrong with colour; it might not affect the taste, but it affects our experience of the taste, and that’s the important thing. Fifty percent of us assume our cordial is lime-flavoured if it’s coloured green. The semi-arbitrary association of “blue” with “raspberry” developed partly because customers just couldn’t tell the difference between strawberry and raspberry flavourings without some sort of colour cue. I’ll put food colouring in orange cakes, and it does make them taste more orangey to me, even though there’s no flavour in it.
At the end of the nineteenth century the burgeoning margarine industry was famously kept in check by legislation controlling not the sale of margarine but its colour (which is naturally white); in the US, margarine that had been coloured an attractive yellow was taxed at forty times the rate of its uncoloured equivalent. In New Hampshire, Vermont, Minnesota, West Virginia and South Dakota, margarine could only be sold at all if it was coloured pink (at least until the Supreme Court demurred). Even the packaging had to be unattractive, predating similar “smoking may cause lung cancer” labelling laws by decades:
In this connection, one state requires that a black band at least three inches wide be painted around the container. Another state requires the use of labels painted with lamp black and oil on all containers of butter substitutes.
And because people like things to look the right colour, this set the stage for profitable dodges:
Another man who made a highly profitable find in the food field in recent years is Leo Peters, originator of the “Pak” margarine package, made out of plastic and containing a capsule for coloring. By merely kneading the “Pak,” a housewife can give a pound of margarine the appetizing hue of butter. It took Peters a long time to put the idea across, but once it was accepted by manufacturers he began collecting royalties estimated at $1,000,000 a year.
So adding something for colour: fine. But salads don’t just have ingredients added for colour. They seem to exist at all just for the sake of that colour, to throw a pie or a bit of meat or something else that actually tastes good into relief. They’re not a decent food that I’d want to eat anyway, with a bit of adornment to make them more enticing: they’re a food that I keep trying because it makes plates look better, and because other people seem to approve, but which there’s never any point in eating. Salads aren’t horrible, they’re just pointless and dreary. They take up space on the plate, but maybe it’s time to start getting smaller plates, or saving money by having reusable crumpled cellophane, instead of wasting five minutes a day chopping up spring onions and radishes, both of which, frankly, taste of nothing at all.
The only reason I haven’t given up on salad entirely is… well, d’you remember I said that I’ve had one salad, ever, that tasted nice? Yes, well, that one tastes really really nice. It has spring onions. It has radishes. I taste the spring onions and radishes as I chop them up, and they still taste of nothing, but then I put them in this salad and they’re delicious.
It doesn’t even look very pretty, which, since “looking pretty” is the one thing most salads are good for (you can’t even throw them, they just fall into their constituent parts and get on your clothes), puts it at a disadvantage. But it doesn’t need to look pretty. It stands around on street corners and sneers at the pretty salads as they go by, and the pretty salads drop their heads and rush onward because they know it’s better than they are.
Potato Salad That Actually Tastes Nice
(A recipe from Raven, whose occasional food posts include some lovely vegan wok omelettes)
500g white baby potatoes, for boiling
1 large carrot
100g spring onions
100ml linseed oil (olive oil sort-of works as well)
60ml balsamic vinegar (supermarket balsamic, not the mad expensive version)
1/2 Teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt to taste
Chop the baby potatoes in half and boil them until the skins are just beginning to fall off.
While they’re boiling, slice the radishes as finely as you can be bothered, and once you get bored of that (about halfway through, for me; you might have a better knife, or more patience) grate the rest. Peel and grate the carrot. Chop the spring onions.
Once the potatoes are ready, drain them and let them cool for ten minutes.
Whisk the oil and vinegar together with the cayenne pepper. Add the radishes, carrot and spring onions to the potatoes, then add the oil-vinegar mixture, and mix it all around with your hands (the potatoes will probably fall apart if you use utensils), adding a bit more oil and vinegar if the potatoes aren’t all getting coated. Chop the chives finely and add them, and mix around again; sprinkle with as much salt as you like.
Leave to cool, then cover and put in the fridge for at least a few hours (up to a day is better). Mix around with your hands again just prior to serving.