The Roots of Caesar Salad

Tijuana chef Caesar Cardini first whipped up the now-ubiquitous dish in the 1920s. Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine, tells Susan Stamberg the story and explains what really makes it a true Caesar salad.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

The Ides of March arrive next week, that day that Julius Caesar was warned about, don't go to the Roman Senate, they said, hit the mall or something. To no avail, Caesar didn't shop, he dropped.

We observe the emperor's death date every year, and perhaps you're planning a party. Well we have a suggestion of what to serve, Caesar's Salad, of course.

But why is it called that? Did the emperor himself grab some romaine lettuce, some parmesan cheese, some anchovies, etcetera, and is that, perhaps, what did him in?

For help, we turn to Ruth Reichl. She's the editor of Gourmet Magazine. And she's on the line with us from New York.

Ruth, why is it called Caesar salad?

RUTH REICHL reporting:

Because it was invented by a guy named Caesar; Caesar Cardini in 1924 in Tijuana. This was prohibition. So all of the Hollywood stars went down to Tijuana when they wanted to party.

And one day, Mr. Cardini is in his restaurant. And a group comes through. And they say, make us something to eat. And he takes everything that's in the restaurant and throws into one bowl, and voile, Caesar Salad is born.

STAMBERG: Oh boy. What he had in the restaurant at the time were raw eggs, right, garlic, crotons, what else?

REICHL: Romaine lettuce, Worcestershire sauce, olive oil, lemon, a little bit of mustard; now, in later years, people added anchovies, but there were no anchovies in the original Caesar Salad.

STAMBERG: Ah, how interesting. Well how did anyone dream up of putting anchovies into it then?

REICHL: Well there are anchovies in Worcestershire sauce and somebody said it would be better or if the anchovies flavor were stronger. And actually, I think, it is better.

But one of the things that people, there are two things that people regularly do wrong with Caesar Salad. One is that they eat it with a fork. Now one of the great things about Caesar Salad, and I think that the reason that it became so popular, is that the original, the leaves were left whole. And you ate it with your fingers.

STAMBERG: Ha, pretty sloppy. And the oil starts crawling up your elbow.

REICHL: No, it doesn't because the other thing about the original is it was not an emulsified dressing. The real way to make a Caesar Salad is to break the eggs on top of the lettuce at the end. And then you grate the cheese onto it. And the eggs coat each piece of lettuce.

STAMBERG: Oh, the eggs laminate everything to the blade?

REICHL: Exactly.

STAMBERG: Except for the fact that people would be quite nervous about eating raw eggs.

REICHL: That is a problem. But you can't have a real Caesar Salad without raw eggs.

STAMBERG: So there you go. Well, have a lovely Ides of March and thank you so much.

REICHL: Thank you.

STAMBERG: Ruth Reichl is editor in chief of Gourmet Magazine. Her latest book is Garlic and Sapphires.

And the time is 22 minutes before the hour.

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