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Hail Caesar...Salad!

Picture from and the San Diego History Center

No, the Caesar Salad is not named after the Roman Emperor. The salad was created far from Rome; it hails from Tijuana, Mexico. The original salad contained romaine lettuce, coddled eggs, garlic, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, olive oil, freshly grated Parmesan cheese, croutons, salt, and pepper. No anchovies.

There are two viable stories about the origination of the salad. Both come from Tijuana and are from the same family.

The first story is about the famed salad created by chef and restaurateur Abelardo Cesare “Caesar” Cardini. Cardini was born in Baveno, Piemonte, Italy (Northern Italy), on February 24, 1896, and after World War I, Cardini and his brother Alessandro "Alex" immigrated to the United States. The Cardini brothers opened a restaurant in San Diego; however, it was impacted by US Prohibition, which resulted in the restaurant's closure. The brothers set their sights on the city that the party crowds went to; Tijuana, Mexico. There, the brothers set up their new restaurant and were as busy as ever. On July 4, 1924, according to Cardini's family, the salad was created during a busy weekend. The restaurant was short of supplies when Cardini learned that a Hollywood crowd was coming for dinner. Cardini did not want to disappoint his famous customers, so he whipped up the salad with what he had on hand. To add flair to his creation, Cardini personally prepared the salad tableside. The salad soon became a hit; people came to the restaurant, especially from Southern California, to get the dish. Initially, the salad was not eaten with forks but rather with fingers. Each plate was prepared with the stems of the lettuce facing out and the critical ingredients placed on each leaf.

Caesar Cardini. Picture from and the San Diego History Center

The Caesar Salad gained popularity in Europe thanks to one very famous couple. Mrs. Wallis Warfield Simpson, mistress and future wife of Prince Edward VIII, was a visitor to Caesar's Restaurant. It was said that Mrs. Simpson would often party in Southern California and Tijuana, where she met her future husband at the Hotel Del Coronado. She became such a fan of the salad that she demanded the dish at all the great European Restaurants she traveled to. Mrs. Simpson instructed the chefs on how to recreate this dish, though she was often disappointed with the recreation. Shortly, the Caesar Salad was heard ordered around the world. In the cookbook by Julia Child, "From Julia Child’s Kitchen," she describes her experience at Caesar's restaurant when her parents brought her to Tijuana. "...The salad was tossed at the table, and my parents, of course, ordered the salad. Caesar himself rolled the big cart up to the table, tossed the romaine in a great wooden bowl, and I wish I could say I remembered his every move, but I don't. The only thing I see again clearly is the eggs. I can see him break two eggs over that romaine and roll them in, the greens going all creamy as the eggs flowed over them. Two eggs in a salad? Two one-minute coddled eggs? The Romaine was not chopped into bite-size pieces but left in whole leaves. Caesar felt the natural shape of the leaves was a perfect scoop with a handle so it could be eaten with the fingers. So the leaves were arranged on a plate with the tips to the center and the stem outward for easy grabbing."

Picture from and the San Diego History Center

In 1938 Cardini moved to Los Angeles, where he opened a gourmet food store. His patrons followed, arriving with empty wine bottles for him to fill with his dressing. In 1948, the demand for Cardini's famous dressing encouraged him to bottle it and to establish Caesar Cardini Foods with his daughter Rosa. He continued with the business until he passed away on November 3, 1956. Today, you can still buy the Caesar Cardini bottled salad dressing at the supermarket.

The second origination story comes from Cardini's brother Alex. Alex stated that he made the salad based on their mother’s recipe in the kitchen of Caesar's restaurant in 1925 and that his brother took the recipe from him. Alex's version was the Aviator's salad as he made the meal for a group of Rockwell Field Air Force pilots who woke up at Caesar's restaurant after a night of parting. On that day, the Aviator Salad was created in honor of his new flying buddies. Alex Cardini eventually moved to Mexico City, opening three restaurants, and this salad was listed on the menu as "the original Alex Cardini Caesar salad." The primary difference between his version and his brothers was the addition of anchovies, a popular ingredient for Caesar salad in upper-class restaurants today.

The Caesar Salad has made its mark on food history. In 1953, the International Society of Epicure in Paris declared the classic salad, famous in Europe, “the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years.” Whoever created it and when this salad has not only outlasted other 'classics' from the period but has grown in popularity ever since.

Pictures from and the San Diego History Center

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