Why you should care

Because American exceptionalism even extends to the salad bar.

“If you have a complete set of salad bowls and they all say Cool Whip on the side,” comedian Jeff Foxworthy once joked, “you might be a redneck.”

And, he might have added, if the bottom of your salad bowl contains a hunk of iceberg lettuce and a convoy of grated carrot drowning in a creamy dressing, then you’re probably an American.

For the millions of Americans who have either become inured to the ubiquitous green salad and its fatty, over-dressed cousins, or who have never had their salad prejudices challenged overseas, it is perhaps hard to appraise the garden variety of salad options that are available stateside.

Sure, there are many restaurants where you can get five-star salad fare, and lots of individuals compose their own innovative, healthy concoctions from farmer’s market ingredients. But the nation’s default salad options, from the side salad staples (House, Garden, Caesar and Chef) to the overpriced mains gussied up with taco shells, chicken strips and honey mustard, are both uninspired and unhealthy (many have more fat than a McDonald’s Big Mac).

In short, visit the vast majority of American kitchens and eateries, and your chances of getting something other than a tasteless, commercially grown vegetable covered with artery-clogging sauces, processed cheeses and sodium-laden meat are slim to none, and slim left town a long time ago — and it’s not living in Hidden Valley.

So what happened? How did the nation that brought us the moon landings, HBO and Michael Jordan find itself pouring bottled blue cheese over unripe tomatoes? Well, in this case, the recipe for mediocrity owes a great deal to one key ingredient: preservation.

The staple of U.S. salad making for almost a century has been iceberg (crisphead) lettuce. The “polyester of lettuce” is about 95-percent water and, according to David Still, a plant scientist at California State Polytechnic University, has “about one-twentieth the amount of vitamins as the darker leafy greens.”

The prevalence of crunchy iceberg lettuce — which accounts for over 60 percent of the lettuce consumed in the U.S. — is thanks in large part to its resilience. California born and bred, the lettuce was the first variety to make the 21-day railcar journey across country, acquiring its name from the layers of cracked ice that the heads were packed in to make the trip and gaining a monopoly over American salads in the process.

Of course, the bland, crunchy versatility of iceberg lettuce is also its original sin, and when you leave it to the second-fattest nation on earth to improvise its tasty redemption, the partially hydrogenated sparks are going to fly. Today iceberg lettuce might be better described as a mere delivery device for America’s new salad sweetheart, ranch dressing, the nation’s most popular dressing since 1992.

The caloric blend of mayonnaise, buttermilk, sour cream and herbs was originally conceived in the 1950s by a California couple on a dude ranch outside of Santa Barbara. But it was the good folks at Clorox, who also brought you such household favorites as Liquid-Plumr and Pine-Sol, that figured out how to transform the dairy-based dressing — via the magic of preservatives like calcium disodium EDTA (made from formaldehyde) — into that jar of Hidden Valley Ranch anchoring your fridge door.

The list of “shelf stable” American salad staples takes off from there: from the imitation bacon bits made of artificially flavored vegetable protein to the hardy croutons — originally made from day-old baguettes in France — that Pepperidge Farm and others injected with high fructose corn syrup and preservatives to ready them for a six-month lease on your pantry shelf.

Add it all up and you have an industrial-strength salad that was built to last. And it has.

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