My Salad Days

A few years ago I was working as a copywriter and not enjoying life. To make myself feel better I was going to write about salad for a very good and cool website. I never turned in a draft because I got a good new job while writing about salad. The salad wave has crashed by now, but here’s the incomplete draft that broaches the subject of The Way We Eat Salad Now in 2013.

Ordering a salad at the ‘Essen on 27th and Madison is terrifying. The line — which takes a few moments more that it should to find the end — begins in one corner of the deli, stretches past the greek yogurt cooler, curls around the hot bar, and during peak lunch rush, diffuses into the cashier line at the opposite corner. Hot lunch patrons shimmy past, plopping this and that into their hinged take-out containers; while the salad queuers stare at nothing, thoughtlessly avoiding others as they brush past.

The queue shuffles, shuffles, then spits out a new customer with each “Yesnextplease!” Eye contact initiates a series of hurried half-verbal grunts and nervous pointing, followed by irritable questioning grunts if the salad assembler finds the salad consumer’s enunciation wanting. The assembler’s fretful movements, punctuated by the “clackclack!” of their tongs in between stuffing gobs of crudities into a lettuce-laden stainless steel bowl, telegraphs a single thought: “Hey buddy, shit or get off the pot.”

Complicating things further are the fellow consumers. Each in their own state of fretful choosing, they dodge each other as their assigned assembler shifts from protein to cheese, from vegetable to grain. Once satisfied with their salad mix — or most likely, find themselves at a loss of ideas or words — the consumer ends it with an “And!” then shouts their dressing. “Youwannehchopped?” the assembler replies, chopper already in hand because, yes, who doesn’t want it chopped?

No matter how familiar one gets with ordering a salad from the ‘Essen on 27th and Madison, it never gets any easier. It just goes faster.

Granted, any city presents its own set of unavoidable tedium. Public transit. Getting a drink at the bar. Meeting people. And salad would fall right into that list — were it not for the fact that it’s salad. Salad is avoidable. The sandwich line is non-existent. And yet, it doesn’t always feel that way.

Most mornings I wake up and I can’t stop thinking about salad. I get into the shower, and somewhere in between washing my butt and shampooing my hair my mind is racing, like: “What should I pick for my six crudities today?” Or: “Does today feel like a mixed green day, or maybe just some romaine hearts? Wait, when is the last time I went with baby spinach?”

On the subway it continues between paragraphs of the day’s news: “If I get ham, is it okay to also get a cheese? But that might throw off my veg raito. Need a decent amount of veg to balance the greens.”

Amongst coffee, emails, Twitter, and the other things that litter my morning, thoughts of salad intrude. “What’s the most efficient way to get to the salad? If I leave at 11:50, I can probably beat the rush! But other must be thinking the same? 11:45 it is.” I must get the salad as quickly as possible, eat it as efficiently as possible, and move on to thinking about something else immediately.

I dread eating salad mostly because I dread not eating salad. Of course, this is New York, where it is statistically impossible to be alone in your own habits. And there are generations of salad enthusiasts to get in line behind, according to Cathy Kaufman, chair of the Culinary Historians of New York and a senior editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink.

“Salad bars were the mainstay of inexpensive lunches throughout the 1980s,” she tells me in an email. “Salad bars are here because the food is relatively cheap, relatively fast, and fulfills an imagined health and diet niche.”

And salad’s increasing visibility makes it so very easy to submit to the dread. No longer does it just hide in the backs of delis — quietly urging you to pick up a plastic container and start filling it with leafy greens. Now it’s an entire subset of fast food.

To wit: Chop’t emerged in 2001 near Union square, and now commands 16 stores between D.C. and New York. Since opening their first store on Park and 51st in 2006, Just Salad expanded to 12 locations in New York, with a 13th opening soon. Sweetgreen, who opened their first New York location just this past summer, is a veritable salad empire with 20 locations, spanning the Beltway to Boston.

All three establishments were born out of a desire to create a (more visible) healthy place to eat — seemingly in defiance of the tucked-away salad bars before them — each with their own set of wrinkles. Just Salad’s co-founder Nick Kenner to New York Magazine in 2006: “We wanted to open a lunch place for the young, hipper crowd that I saw in midtown.” Chop’t introduced chopping, and now all of our salad bars are filled with the fervent staccato of mezzalunas. While Sweetgreen aims to create the most enjoyable salad-eating experience: “Ingredients are important, but the experience in the store should leave them happier than we found them,” co-founder Nicolas Jammet told the Times last summer.

The rise of the salad chain hasn’t really contributed to an influx of leafy green converts, but rather championed the act of eating a salad. “The emergence in the chain salad bars may be because of a perception that, in addition to the foregoing, they can tap into a gestalt of “green market” consciousness,” Kaufman posits. “It just may be that there are now specialized venues taking sales away from other sites.”

I have a theory: After college, life reveals itself as a random string of events and coincidences. A job is offered in the waning hours of the last day of an unpaid internship. Home is a series of couches for the first six months of your professional life. Control over life seems illusory at best.

But what you do still have control over is your body. You get to decide what you put in, or don’t put in, your mouth. Editors and good story ideas are capricious. Calories, fats, sugars, salts — these are the few remaining things in life that are under your thrall. And so, I eat salad to stay in control of something.

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