Back in the 1950s and 1960s, restaurant menus offered hearts of lettuce salad with creamy dressings. The head was cut into quarters and plated with a slice of tomato for color.
Homemakers were fans, too.
Even James Beard was a fan, recommending the crisp texture mixed with other greens.
Then came the California cuisine movement, introducing us to better varieties to eat. Iceberg was mocked for lacking flavor.
Instead, foodies filled their shopping carts with romaine plus arugula and radicchio.
Yet, hardy, crunchy iceberg still accounts for 70% of the lettuces raised in California (down from 80% in the mid-1970s, however). It’s still popular in foodservice (commercial, institutional), at salad bars and casual restaurants.
And thanks to the retro food movement of the past decade, iceberg has returned to restaurant menus beyond the steakhouse, in the hearts of lettuce salad now known by a trendier name: wedge salad.
Let the wedge salad add fun and crunch to your meals. If you have a daily dinner salad, feature the wedge once a week. Turn it into a DIY salad buffet for family and guests. An ingredients list is below.
The crisphead (iceberg) lettuce variety is relatively new in the history of lettuce cultivation (see the different categories of lettuce, below).
Crisphead lettuce was a mutation: A grower discovered a different-looking, sweeter-tasting head of lettuce in his field.
Liking its flavor and superior crispness, he teamed with other growers to breed it to be even better. Thus was born what we today call iceberg lettuce.
The new variety became a top seller, and remains so. It was called crisphead, its given varietal name, until the 1920s. It subsequently acquired the name iceberg because of its ability to be transported for long distances when packed on ice.
Before the iceberg named settled in, it was also called cabbage lettuce, for its resemblance to cabbage. In 1894, a Burpee seed catalog exclaimed, “There is no handsomer or more solid Cabbage Lettuce in cultivation.”
Numerous varieties of crisphead were developed, including varieties with reddish leaves tinged with green and varieties with scalloped edges. While they did not enter the mass market, you can still buy the seeds from specialty sellers.
Now about the wedge salad:
Period cookbooks, newspapers and culinary reference books date the popularity of iceberg lettuce salads to the 1920s.
But the general consensus is that the wedge salad with creamy dressing became a ubiquitous menu entry in the 1950s. [source]
Who served the first “hearts of lettuce salad,” as it was then called?
Likely it was a steak house, given the popularity of that type of restaurant in the 1950s and the [still] ubiquitous presence on those menus. But as with so many things, we can only give credit to “an unknown cook.”
 California wedge salad with prosciutto crumbles (photo © Little Broken).
DIY WEDGE SALAD BAR
At THE NIBBLE, we’ve added a lot to the simple wedge salad. Call it a DIY, customized or signature wedge salad, it’s a fun munch.
The Must Haves
There four basic types: butterhead, iceberg, leaf, and romaine, along with hundreds of hybrids bred from them.
Iceberg Lettuce: Also known as crisped lettuce, this is the crispest and hardiest of lettuces varieties. It lasts twice as long in the fridge as long as most other varieties. The downside: It’s not as flavorful or nutritious as other lettuces.
Butterhead Lettuce: Comprising Boston and Bibb Lettuces, these are small, loosely formed heads of soft, supple leaves. Boston is a larger and fluffier head than Bibb; Bibb is the size of a fist, and sweeter than Boston. Both are excellent for lettuce cups. The down side: They’re highly perishable and bruise easily; and are pricier than iceberg and romaine.
Leaf Lettuce: This category does not form a head; the leaves branch up from a single stalk. The leaves are very tender and are often seen in baby lettuce blends. The burgundy tint of red leaf lettuce and the spicier, nuttier oak leaf lettuce adds charming color to a mixed green salad. The downside: Leaf lettuces are more perishable than head lettuces and wilt easily.
Romaine Lettuce: Second in crunchiness to iceberg lettuce, romaine is a stalk lettuce like leaf lettuce, with a pleasant bitterness. The crunchy center ribs make the leaves sturdy; and when the outer leaves are trimmed, the smaller ones (sold as hearts of romaine) can be used as “boats” to hold protein salads (egg, chicken, tuna, etc.).