Boomers Watched Out for the Iceberg

For locavores in North America this is the best time of year, when fruits and vegetables grown locally are freshest most abundant at farmers’ markets and produce stands. Boomers don’t need a reminder about what it is like to eat locally-grown produce, however, because when we were growing up — especially in the 1950s — all that was available to us was locally grown. Many moms and aunts of boomers would spend early fall canning fruits and vegetables for use in the winter months ahead.

When it came to lettuce, though, there wasn’t any choice — there were only heads of iceberg lettuce. “Iceberg lettuce” was synonymous with “lettuce” to us the same way that Kleenex was used for all facial tissue, or Jell-O meant a gelatin dessert. Whether you ate at home or in restaurants, iceberg lettuce was the go-to green for salads. As a result, for the vast majority of homes and restaurants, including diners and family establishments, a typical salad consisted of iceberg lettuce cut or torn into bite-size pieces, and a tomato slice or quarter.

A variety of lettuce was first cultivated by the Egyptians, possibly around 50 A.D., and later spread to the Greeks and Romans. The variety we know as “iceberg,” however, was a hybrid made in the U.S.A. It was developed when a farmer noticed a mutant head of lettuce in his patch had very crisp properties, and kept well over time. The W. Atlee Burpee Seed Co. sold the first “crisphead lettuce” seeds, as it was called then, in 1894. California was the first state to grow and ship it. The nation’s recently completed railroads allowed farmers and distributors to ship lettuce coast to coast. Boxes of crisphead lettuce were packed in ice for the trip, prompting people to call out, “The Icebergs are coming!” when the lettuce train pulled into stations. During WWII, iceberg lettuce became a taste of home for soldiers. When they returned home and started the Baby Boomer generation, iceberg lettuce remained in their memories. Once President Eisenhower’s visionary Interstate Highway System began being built in the mid-50s, interstate commerce could be handled by trucks instead of only by trains. The combination of new families and greater access to the veggie rocketed it to its highest popularity in the 1950s and ’60s.

It didn’t have much flavor on its own, but was mainly known for holding a little water and delivering a big crunch — the perfect structure to stand up to dressings, especially creamy ones. Three major salad dressings made the rounds during the 1950s and early ’60s: Italian (vinegar and oil, possibly with some herbs), French and Thousand Island. Later, Roquefort or bleu cheese was added to the selection. In an effort to add an upscale experience for diners sometime in the 1960s, first higher-end restaurants, then many others down the economic strata began serving iceberg lettuce in wedges drizzled with dressing. Mister B loved this presentation at home for one major reason: he liked the denser bits the best, especially the parts near the core that had a little bitterness in the taste. He would open a bottle of Thousand Island or French dressing to pour on his wedge. Unlike many people, though, Mister B always preferred the ratio be much more salad than salad dressing. Mister B aimed to have no dressing in the plate when he was finished, so moderation was the name of the salad dressing game. To this day he asks for salad dressing on the side when dining out so he can control the amount that is placed on his salad greens.

Iceberg’s broad leaves could be used as a base for cottage cheese and canned fruit “diet” plates (see Mister Boomer’s A Cottage Industry Booms During Boomer Years). It also was used as garnish below Jell-O molds throughout the 1950s and ’60s. It’s possible some fancy restaurants served Caesar salad with Romaine lettuce, but for Mister B and boomers like him, fancy restaurants were not going to be a part of his dining experiences. This was not a real problem for Mister B, because not only did he not miss what he never had, but once he had heard that Caesar salad dressing was made of raw eggs, garlic and anchovies, the deal was sealed and Mister B would have already been out the door.

You can still find the “traditional boomer” iceberg salad in family restaurants and diners, though many have added croutons, cheddar cheese shreds, cucumbers, onions and bacon bits to the standard fare. Iceberg is enjoying a bit of a comeback in recent years, especially in wedge form, despite a dizzying array of lettuce varieties now available at the consumer level. At this point, Mister B is spoiled by the varieties that have much more flavor and are just as crispy. He’ll still consume iceberg lettuce, and along with it, a bit of nostalgia, but it isn’t going to be his first choice.

What role did iceberg lettuce play in your family’s dining, boomers?