For many decades, iceberg lettuce was king of the American salad. Unless you ordered a fancy caesar salad with romaine, when you asked for salad, you got iceberg. It was salad. Then sometime around the early 80's, things started to change. The fresher and more unique flavors of other greens — like fresh spinach, mesclun, arugula, and radicchio — came into vogue, and iceberg became a joke, a sad symbol of homogeny and unsophistication. But things are changing yet again and today iceberg has made a small but noticeable comeback.
After years of being maligned as a flavorless, good for nothing salad green, iceberg is starting to find a new place in American cuisine. While it's not even close to the kingly status it once had, you can occasionally find iceberg on hip menus as an retro/ironic wedge or chopped salad. Many people still love it for their burgers and BLTs, and it's a perfect base for the classic 7-Layer salad.
After its decline in the US, iceberg became popular in places like Mexico where it was used as a sweeter substitute for shredded cabbage. And in Asia, too. From Irene Sax's excellent article The Ice Queen from Saveur:
In China, the world's largest producer of lettuce in the world, cooks cherish iceberg's resilient texture and add it to warm dishes like congee soups and fried rice. In Japan, locally grown iceberg has become a staple of the simply dressed salads that are often eaten for breakfast or as a refreshing side dish.
And of course, some people never stopped eating it. Whether it's tucked into their fast food burger or still 'salad' on the family dinner table, the crisp, fresh, hardy nature of iceberg is the preferred salad green in many American households. Farmers are now growing more interesting and flavorful varieties, and you can often find them on offer in farmers' markets these days.
Personally, I find that I occasionally want the crisp, juicy texture of iceberg in some of my dishes and will pick up a small head, especially now that you can find organic iceberg. How about you? Are you a fan? What's your favorite use for iceberg?