Caesar salad, invented in Mexico by Italian immigrants, is still pleasing palates after 100 years

Unlike some other menu items from the early 20th century — think creamed liver loaf or aspic — Caesar salad remains a perennial favorite.

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 Salad Master Efrain Montoya mixes Romaine leaves with other ingredients as he prepares a Caesar salad at Ceasar's restaurant Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Tijuana, Mexico. Caesar salad has something to celebrate: It's turning 100. Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini is said to have invented the dish on July 4, 1924, at his restaurant, Caesar's Place, in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Salad Master Efrain Montoya mixes whole Romaine leaves with other ingredients as he prepares a classic Caesar salad at Caesar’s restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. The beloved salad celebrated its 100th birthday on July 4.

Gregory Bull/AP

Caesar salad has something to celebrate: It’s 100 years old.

Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini is said to have invented the dish on July 4, 1924, at his restaurant, Caesar’s Place, in Tijuana, Mexico. It was a steamy night, and Cardini was struggling to feed an influx of Californians who had crossed the border to escape Prohibition.

In the middle of the dining room, Cardini tossed whole Romaine leaves with ingredients he had on hand, including garlic-flavored oil, Worcestershire sauce, lemons, eggs and Parmesan cheese. A star was born.

Tijuana is commemorating the anniversary this month with a three-day food and wine festival, and the unveiling of a statue of Cardini. Caesar’s — a different, more elegant restaurant Cardini opened in Tijuana a few years after the salad was born — still makes as many as 300 Caesar salads each day.

Unlike some other menu items from the early 20th century — think creamed liver loaf or aspic — Caesar salad remains a perennial favorite. Around 35% of U.S. restaurants have Caesar salad on their menus, according to Technomic, a restaurant consulting firm. And nearly 43 million bottles of Caesar salad dressing — or $150 million worth — have been sold in the U.S. over the past year, according to Nielsen IQ.

 Salad Master Efrain Montoya prepares a Caesar salad in front of an image of the inventor of the salad, Caesar Cardini, at Caesar's restaurant Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Tijuana, Mexico. Caesar salad has something to celebrate: It's turning 100. Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini is said to have invented the dish on July 4, 1924, at his restaurant, Caesar's Place, in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Salad Master Efrain Montoya prepares a Caesar salad in front of an image of the inventor of the salad, Caesar Cardini, at Caesar’s restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico.

Gregory Bull/AP

Beth Forrest, a professor of liberal arts and applied food studies at the Culinary Institute of America, said it took a few years for Caesar salad to hit the mainstream. A recipe for it didn’t make “Joy of Cooking,” one of the most popular American cookbooks, until the 1951 edition. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Caesar salad was often prepared tableside, giving it an air of spectacle and sophistication, she said.

Forrest said Caesar salad is ideal for the Western palate because it contains our two preferred textures: crispy and creamy. The egg yolks and Parmesan cheese are also high in glutamate acids, which give the salad the rich, salty taste known as umami.

“It satisfies us in many hedonistic ways, while we can still feel virtuous. It is, after all, a salad,” Forrest said.

Caesar’s many variations have also given it staying power, experts say. Chefs may add chicken, bacon or salmon, mix in kale or Brussels sprouts and make the dressing out of miso paste or tofu.

At Beatrix, a chain of five restaurants in Chicago that makes healthier versions of comfort foods, chef and partner Andrew Ashmore spreads a spoonful of yogurt-based dressing at the bottom of the salad bowl and mixes it with capers, parsley, lemon vinaigrette and champagne vinegar before adding little gem lettuce, baby arugula, bread crumbs and a generous shaving of Grada Padano cheese.

“It’s our No. 1 selling salad, and it has been since we opened 11 years ago,” Ashmore said. “I couldn’t try to take it off the menu if I wanted to.”

Salad Master Efrain Montoya carefully cracks an egg as he prepares a Caesar salad at Caesar's restaurant.

Salad Master Efrain Montoya cracks an egg with the greatest of flair as he prepares a Caesar salad at Caesar’s restaurant. Raw egg is one of the key ingredients in a classic Caesar salad.

Gregory Bull/AP

Cardini was not inclined to vary his recipe. In a 1987 interview with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, his daughter Rosa Cardini said her father was very precise in preparing his creation. He used only the tender, inner leaves of Romaine lettuce and left them whole, intending diners to pick them up with their fingers. He boiled the eggs for one minute before adding them, and he didn’t use anchovies.

There is some debate about the origins of the salad.

Some claim the recipe was actually from the mother of Livio Santini, one of Cardini’s chefs and a fellow Italian immigrant. Others say Cardini’s brother Alex was the originator of the salad, which he made with limes and anchovy paste. Alex’s version was dubbed “Aviator’s Salad” because he supposedly served it to airmen from a San Diego base.

 Salad Master Efrain Montoya poses holding a Caesar salad at Caesar's restaurant Thursday, June 27, 2024, in Tijuana, Mexico. Caesar salad has something to celebrate: It's turning 100. Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini is said to have invented the dish on July 4, 1924, at his restaurant, Caesar's Place, in Tijuana, Mexico. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Salad Master Efrain Montoya presents a completed Caesar salad at Caesar’s restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. Prepared just as it was 100 years ago, the salad features whole Romaine leaves.

Gregory Bull/AP

Forrest said the recipe also echoes old Italian specialties. It resembles a pinzimonio, a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice used as a vegetable dip, or a bagna cauda, a hot dip of anchovy and garlic from the Piedmont region where Cardini was born.

Caesar’s in Tijuana didn’t respond when asked about the salad’s history by The Associated Press, but the restaurant does mention Santini’s name on its website.

Business in Tijuana declined after Prohibition ended, so Caesar Cardini moved his family to Los Angeles in 1935. They bottled their Caesar dressing at home before eventually founding Caesar Cardini Foods Inc.

Rosa Cardini took over the family company in 1956 after her father’s death, eventually adding 17 other dressings. T. Marzetti, a maker of dressings and dips, acquired Cardini Foods in 1996 and still sells Caesar Cardini’s brand dressings.

CAESAR SALAD RECIPE

Bowl of Caesar Salad

Caesar Salad

stock.adobe.com

It’s 100 years since the Caesar salad was invented, it’s said, on the Fourth of July at a restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico. And it’s had staying power.

My recipe takes its lead from an ingenious Caesar dressing created by Brooklyn restaurateur Frank Falcinelli. It relies on mayonnaise, which has cooked eggs built right in, so if you have concerns about using raw egg yolks in your dressing, your worries are relieved.

Even if you think you don’t like anchovies, you should still try a small amount, which gives the Caesar dressing its inimitable flavor. The only reason to leave them out is if you are vegetarian (and note to vegetarians: Worcestershire sauce also contains anchovies, so sub in some soy sauce instead).

Top this Caesar salad with some sliced chicken, a piece of grilled salmon or tuna steak, or some poached or grilled shrimp for a restaurant-y entrée. You could also roll it in a wrap.

Ingredients

For the Croutons (Optional):

  • 2 cups day-old cubes of firm white bread (about 3/4-inch thick)
  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove (pressed through a garlic press or very finely minced )
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

For the Caesar dressing:

  • ¼ cup mayonnaise
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (depending on how lemony you like it)
  • ½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 anchovy rinsed and very finely minced or 1/2 teaspoon anchovy paste (plus optional additional whole anchovies for topping individual portions)
  • 1 garlic clove (pressed through a garlic press or very finely minced )
  • ¼ teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon water

For the salad:

  • 4 hearts of romaine lettuce (or 2 full heads; rinsed and dried)
  • ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

1. Make the croutons, if using: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Spread the bread cubes on a rimmed baking sheet. Mix together the olive oil, garlic and salt in a small bowl, then drizzle the mixture over the bread cubes, and toss to coat the bread. Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, until the bread is golden and toasted. Set aside.

2. Make the dressing: In a blender or food processor, add the mayonnaise, olive oil, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, anchovies (if using), garlic, salt, pepper and water, and process until blended (or just shake everything up in a tightly sealed jar).

3. Make the Caesar salad: Tear or thinly slice the romaine hearts and place in a large serving bowl (you should have about 8 cups). Drizzle about 2/3 of the dressing over it and toss to combine. Sprinkle the cheese on top and toss again until everything is evenly mixed. Add more dressing as needed, but don’t drown it. Leftover dressing may be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Top the salad with croutons, if using, before serving.

Recipe by Katie Workman, author of two cookbooks focused on family-friendly cooking, “Dinner Solved!” and “The Mom 100 Cookbook.”

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