The news that Iceberg lettuces are being rationed in the UK, due to supply shortages, has made me ponder the nature of salad. When I was growing up, salad was Iceberg lettuce, sliced tomatoes and cucumber. I didn’t eat salad.

Fortunately for me, my definition of salad expanded as I got older, and now I no longer have to say that I don’t eat salad. I do, however, avoid the traditional salad garnishes you get in restaurants – the year-round offering of lettuce, tomato and cucumber with a smattering of raw onion.

Salad pot

But what counts as a salad? From a gardener’s perspective, salad vegetables are those that can be eaten raw. The growth in baby leaves has really expanded that range in the last few decades (for which we owe good deal of thanks to Joy Larkcom). It’s often only leaves that earn the epithet ‘salad’, but we know we can add other raw vegetables, sliced or grated or in their juvenile state.

So salad is raw. Except, it isn’t. You can add cooked vegetables to salads.

But it’s served cold, right? Well… mostly, but you can get warm salads.

So a salad is a plate of vegetables? Well… no, not really. A side salad can be just veg, but a main course salad would be expected to contain some sort of protein – meat or cheese, perhaps, or some nice pulses (suitably cooked). And you get pasta salads and rice salads, in which vegetables are often an afterthought. And you can have fruit salad for dessert. (And while we’re on the subject of fruit, is a fruit soup just a smoothie served in a bowl??)

“A salad is a dish consisting of a mixture of small pieces of food, which may be mixed with a sauce or salad dressing. They are typically served cold. Salads may contain vegetables, fruits, cheese, cooked meat, eggs, grains and nuts.”

According to Wikipedia

It seems as though salad is one of those concepts that is very hard to describe, but understood by everyone in a very human, fuzzy logic kind of way.

I thought perhaps that an expert on food might have a definitive opinion, so I sought out Harold McGee’s ‘McGee on Food & Cooking’, an encyclopedia of kitchen science, history and culture. Disappointingly, it doesn’t have a definition of salad. But it does have some fascinating historical insights. For example, it tells us that the ancient Greeks were fond of lettuce, and the Romans served it at both the beginning and end of meals.

The English were enjoying lettuce-free salats in the Middle Ages, so perhaps we can take a leaf out of their book for the duration of this ‘crisis’:

Take parsley, sage, garlic, scallions, onions, leeks, borage, mints, young leeks, fennel, cress, new rosemary, purslane; wash them clean; pick them and pluck them small with your hands, and mix them well with raw oil. Lay on vinegar and salt, and serve it forth.

– From The Forme of Cury, from around 1309, via Harold McGee

The Iceberg lettuce was crisphead lettuce until the 1930s, when the poor things were shipped all over America by rail, buried in ice. Before that, people had to rely on what was grown locally, whether in gardens or on farms.

The 2017 veg ‘crisis’ started with courgettes, moved onto Iceberg lettuces and broccoli and is likely to mean shortages of tomatoes, peppers and celery over the next few weeks. As many people have pointed out, this is a bit of a First World Problem. No one is going to starve, or even suffer a serious deficiency, if they can’t eat these particular vegetables for a few weeks. As explained by Annals of Botany, there are plenty of leafy greens to fill the gap. And there are British seasonal vegetables we could be eating instead (although I am personally happy to leave kale for other people – I am not a kale convert).

And yes, part of the answer to insulating yourself from food insecurity (which climate change is making more problematic) is to grow your own. If you sow seeds for Iceberg lettuces now you might just get a harvest before the crisis is over. There are speedier veg, but year-round self-sufficiency in salads requires time and planning. It may well be a good time to start, and VegPlotting’s 52 Week Salad Challenge will provide plenty of inspiration. But the only things that are going to make up for shortages over the next few weeks are sprouts and microgreens. The salad seeds I sowed last month haven’t got past the seedling stage yet – there’s not enough light on the windowsill.

If I have a point to make (and I’m not 100% sure that I do), it’s that broadening your vegetable horizons is a worthwhile endeavour, and that lettuce really aren’t the icebergs we should be worrying about.

Salads in the Vegetable Inspirations garden