A Tale of 3 Caesar Salads

updated Jun 6, 2019
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Eggless Caesar Dressing (Image credit: Sara Kate Gillingham)

The original Caesar, a product of neither America nor Italy, but of Tijuana, Mexico, has come a long way. In its century of existence, the salad has evolved from finger food to American classic to questionable health food. For the armchair historian or the Caesar devotee, here is a condensed history of the legendary salad in three iconic Caesars.

The 3 Eras of Caesar

1. The Original Caesar

The original Caesar salad was invented in Tijuana in the 1920s, most likely by restaurant owner Caesar Cardini, but possibly by his mother (or someone else’s mother). Regardless, it bears a strong resemblance to the salad enjoyed across the Americas for the better part of the 20th century.

The original dressing hasn’t changed much since its creation in Mexico, and its ingredient list will look pretty familiar to you, too: Parmesan cheese, oil, lightly coddled eggs, Worcestershire sauce, and garlic. Anchovies didn’t ratchet up the umami factor until, as legend has it, Caesar Cardini’s brother Alex added them to the original recipe a few years later.

There’s one notable difference, however: At Caesar’s Restaurant in Tijuana (which still exists today), whole leaves of romaine were tossed in dressing and fanned out in a circle on a flat plate to be eaten as finger food.

(Image credit: New York Times Co./Getty Images)

2. The American Classic

All hail Julia’s Caesar. As a girl of 8 or 9, Julia Child visited the Tijuana restaurant with her family and witnessed the creation of what, by that time, had become “a sensation” across the United States and parts of Europe.

As an adult, she couldn’t recall many details about the way that salad was prepared, but she did know that it was a new experience for her parents. “At that point, people weren’t really eating salads,” she later said on her television cooking show, “so it was a very exciting moment for them.” This was especially true since the first Caesars were tossed tableside, as they are often still prepared today.

Years later, Julia helped to popularize the salad with help from Caesar Cardini’s daughter, Rosa. Julia favored a large chop on the romaine leaves, using only the white hearts of the lettuce and discarding the dark green outer portions. Curiously, Rosa Cardini insisted that the salad was to be made without anchovies, an omission that surprised Jaques Pépin, who made the salad with Julia on her show and co-authored Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, in which the recipe was published.

(Image credit: Alexis Buryk)

3. The Kale Caesar

For 80-some-odd years, the Caesar salad rolled merrily along, on restaurant menus, at airport kiosks, and in prepared-food aisles. The ingredients varied, but the idea was the same. Then, in the late aughts, one significant ingredient swap became an unstoppable trend. Today, we’ve reached peak kale Caesar.

It’s unclear who to credit (or blame) for the kale Caesar craze, and one has to wonder what Julia Child or Caesar Cardini himself would think of its widespread appeal. Sure, kale has had its moment in the sun, but why has the kale Caesar enjoyed such sustained popularity?

For one thing, with all its egg, cheese, and anchovies, Caesar’s hearty dressing has met its match with kale’s tough stems — a kale Caesar is more or less immune to wilting. What’s more, as Serious Eats’ resident kale-Caesar apologist Kenji López-Alt points out, kale’s naturally waxy leaves are tenderized by the oil in the dressing and can be ideally suited to the heavy dressing when pre-massaged by a chef. There’s also, of course, the health factor — kale delivers vitamins in spades (although who turns to Caesar salad for a nutrition boost, I’m not sure).

However you like your salad, we support you whole-heartedly. But whatever you do, don’t skimp on the fat.

Are you Caesar purist, or a kale convert? Do you have a favorite recipe to share? Tell us your preferences in the comments.