Sunday, September 18, 2005

High-Definition Lettuce

In terms of lettuce, I grew up a member of the Iceberg Generation. Our lettuce was a greener shade of pale, but what it lacked in taste it made-up in crispness. On sandwiches, that crispness broke the mouthfeel monotony of Oscar Meyer mystery meat on Wonder bread. But if one were to experience iceberg lettuce as the featured attraction, such as in a “salad,” it was just roughage.

In the past decade, the U.S. population has begun an ascent up the lettuce hierarchy of needs. Where once our ancestors foraged only for iceberg at the local supermarket, now they return with a plenitude of choices: hail-caesar romaine, post-Popeye spinach, the weedeater’s frisee, and other varieties with code-names like “arugula” and “butterhead.”

Living in Northern California, epicenter of lettuce actualization, I bring a report from the future. One of the best restaurant dishes I ever had was a recent salad. It was a small head of organic butter lettuce and a simple mustard-vinaigrette dressing. That’s it. No croutons, no crumbled feta, no nothing.

If iceberg lettuce was like black and white television, and typical Northern California organic greens are like color TV, this was high-definition lettuce. Beyond that phrase, I won’t try to relate the experience. My only point is to say that the trend toward better lettuce continues, not just in variety but in taste. So if you see a suspiciously spartan lettuce dish at a high-quality restaurant, try it.

[For the record, my butter-lettuce epiphany dish was at a San Francisco restaurant called La Suite, corner of Embarcadero and Brannan, now defunct.]

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