At least once a month during that pretty hot Colorado summer, I tried to write a recipe from somewhere that didn’t require the cook to heat up much, if at all. There was a cold yoghurt soup from Iran, room-warm dishes from Italy, and even a chilled raw vegetable salad from the Middle Ages.
I wondered what my home state of Colorado could offer as a cooling summer dish as I remembered we were once the iceberg lettuce capital of the United States. (California won that nickname, of course.)
Yes, strange to think about it now, but true in its prime. From the early 1920s through the 1940s, several Colorado counties such as Eagle and Routt and places such as Buena Vista and Salida were net exporters of thousands of lettuce railroad cars east and west across the country well into fall and early winter when salad exports from California ceased.
The cars were crammed with ice that came from shallow ponds high in the Rockies, mostly around the (now-gone) town of Pando, about halfway between Minturn and Leadville along Colorado Highway 24. Pando also marks the place at which the US Army Camp Hale in. built in the early 1940s to train World War II troops for the Army’s 10th Mountain Division sent to the Italian Alps.
An April 6, 1942 edition of the Carbondale Chronicle praised Pando as the ideal location for such a warehouse, “because winter comes early in this area and goes late.” the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, which waited a bit on the tracks at the Avon Depot, used up. Lettuce farmers from and around Avon itself, Minturn, Beaver Creek and Bachelor Gulch brought their lettuce (and other crops) and filled these freight cars.
The pattern was the same at other railroad depots around Colorado, other lettuce farmers, other ice houses, and ice pond springs. In those early years of the 20th century, lettuce (sometimes “crispy head”) likely got its nickname “iceberg lettuce,” largely due to Pando’s ice cream.
Iceberg is currently very unpopular with the Lettuscenti, who prefer other greens such as mesclun, frisée, “spring mix” or baby spinach. (There’s also the kale boom.) Even so, iceberg lettuce remains the largest segment of US lettuce production, much of it going into what many believe is the greatest invention for the home kitchen since the dishwasher: sack lettuce.
Despite the popular belief that icebergs are low in nutrients, this is not the case. the misunderstanding is based on the bias that it is not dark green. Iceberg is strong in thiamine, vitamins A, C, and K, as well as iron, potassium, fiber, and manganese.
True, iceberg has less flavor or aroma than many other salads or vegetables, but I believe that its lingering appeal is structural in nature. It’s a great lagniappe if you can hear your food as you eat.
So make a classic wedge salad this summer to cool off your meal and remember an important part of Colorado’s history when the state of Iceberg was Central. I got lucky for this recipe and picked up heads from Charles Johnson from City Center in Colorado and didn’t have to buy in California. Always nice when a boy from Colorado can do that.
Buttermilk blue cheese dressing
By Sam Sifton, nytimes.com. Serves 4.
- 4 ounces of blue cheese, like Roquefort, crumbled
- 1/4 cup buttermilk
- 2 tablespoons of mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon of olive oil
- 1 teaspoon hot sauce
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 dash of Worcestershire sauce, to taste
Scatter the cheese in a medium-sized bowl and mash it with a whisk. Add the buttermilk, mayonnaise, olive oil, hot sauce, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce, mash and beat the dressing until largely smooth. You can ask for a little more hot sauce or lemon juice or Worcestershire sauce to taste. Then whisk again and set aside.
Louis 1000 dressing
This is an adaptation of a Louis dressing (for crab or lobster salad) that I learned from my mother Madeleine M. St. John, with the usual tweaks typical of a Thousand Island dressing, such as: Makes 3 cups.
- 1 cup of mayonnaise
- 1/3 cup chilli sauce (no ketchup), heat setting of your choice
- 2 tablespoons of grated onion juice (or 1/2 teaspoon of onion powder)
- 1 teaspoon of freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon sweet or hot paprika powder of your choice
- 3 tablespoons of sweet cucumber relish, juice included
- 1 cup heavy whipped cream
Mix the first 6 ingredients in a bowl and stir until creamy. If desired, chill in a separate bowl and whip the whipped cream until soft.
Combine the contents of both bowls and fold carefully but thoroughly so as not to empty or whip the whipped cream. Chill until ready to use. Sauce leftovers keep in the refrigerator for 4-5 days and can be used as a dressing for salads, as a dip or for a Reuben sandwich.
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