Saturday, March 15, 2008

#118 - Caesar's New Clothes

Caesar's New Clothes

3/15/08 (#118)

I didn't discover the Caesar salad until I was in my 30's. We stood at the counter of Pizzacato, my wife eager to split the salad and assuring me that any horror stories I had heard about the dish were surely fabricated, or at the very least greatly exaggerated. I had heard no such stories, my only recollection of the salad being a query to my mother when I was a teenager, her reply being, "I don't think you'd like it." That was sufficient (as the primary curator of my simple palate, she was probably correct), and never gave them another thought. I saw them on menus for decades, but took my mother at her word until that day at Pizzacato. We ordered the salad, toted it back to the apartment, and I was smitten.

A good Caesar is to the garden salad what a big, juicy backyard barbecue burger is to a McDonald's "hamburger" (how they use that noun with a straight face is a mystery to me), or what a succulent seafood fajita at a gourmet Mexican restaurant is to 99 cent burrito from the 7-11 cooler. (And no, "gourmet Mexican restaurant" is not an oxymoron, despite Portland's spate of mediocre taquerias.) The Caesar is an explosion of flavor, the garden salad a tolerable penance eaten to atone for the sin of fried foods.

For those unfamiliar, there are a variety of salads that fall under the definition of Caesar: Some are spinach based, others feature romaine (I eat only the latter); most utilize a garlic-based dressing, but a few use an anchovy-based dressing (I enjoy both, but prefer a slightly creamy Caesar, not a garlic vinaigrette); some come with chicken, but that's usually an optional side. The key to the salad is the dressing---other than that, it's just lettuce, shaved parmesan cheese and a handful of croutons.

For aficionados, you will likely appreciate both my affection for the salad, and my one complaint with the dish: The Caesar is exorbitantly---and inexplicably---overpriced.

As a rule, restaurants set their prices based on cost of product: Take the cost of the ingredients, add other overhead expenses, multiply the sum by a house-standard percentage and you have your menu price. That's why shrimp costs more than chicken---because shrimp costs more than chicken. Yet the Caesar defies this process, apparently priced by flavor rather than cost of product: The romaine Caesar has no tomatoes (whose fickle value depends, literally, on the weather), no boiled eggs or bacon or strips of prosciutto, no labor-intensive chopping of carrots or celery or radishes or onions. Yet despite this simple list of ingredients, most restaurants have the audacity to charge $7 for a Caesar while selling the garden salad for $4.

It's true everywhere---in even the most paper-napkin of places, the Caesar has a white linen price tag. The Caesar appeals to discerning tastes, which restaurateurs seem to equate with financial liquidity, like it's some kind of fine wine rather than a bowl of lettuce with some cheese shavings and chopped up bread heels on top, as if anyone ordering the Caesar must be stopping for a bite to eat before going back to the yacht or needs nourishment before the polo match. Comparing the cost to make a Caesar to the cost to order a Caesar, you would swear these salads are being assembled by a government contractor.

I am not familiar with the internal machinations of the restaurant business, but I refuse to believe the occasional (and only) alibi that I've heard offered in defense of this obviously-colluded pricing scheme: "It's expense to make the dressing." Okay, maybe making a gallon of it requires a large initial investment, but considering it's then doled out by the tablespoon (and no, you can't have another tablespoon), the economy of scale contradicts that theory. Every dressing other than sour-cream-and-a-packet-of-spices Ranch takes time and effort to repair, but no one is trying to get rich on Raspberry Vinaigrette.

I suspect the reality of overpriced Caesar is this: The garden salad is commonly ordered as an additional item, a side to accompany an entree, so restaurants need to price it reasonably enough that the diner's tab doesn't resemble a premium-channels cable bill; the Caesar, on the other hand, is often ordered as a main dish, being so aggressive in flavor that ordering it to compliment your meal is like asking Don Rickles to compliment your wardrobe. ("Hey, why don't you order the garden salad, take the four bucks you save and replace the light bulb in your closet. Whose your tailor, P.T. Barnum?") A restaurant is never going to be successful if patrons can leave having spent only $4, so the Caesar gets promoted from mere salad to economic manipulation tool.

This blatant gastronomic discrimination has been festering the dark dining rooms of America's restaurants for too long, and only by exposing this Caesarian chicanery to the harsh light of public opinion can we make this stop. Diners need to put their collective feet down and say, "Hey, until this plate of leaves stops costing three bucks more than a burger and fries, I'm not supporting your anti-garlic-lovers agenda!"

I would start this revolution myself, but as I said, I'm smitten. Throughout this protest, I will have to order wilted piles of "mixed greens" (read: weeds), each with a couple of slippery tomato wedges, a lonely cucumber slice or a few shreds of carrot topped with a so-called Thousand Island dressing that ably doubles as a cheeseburger condiment. I know I should celebrate this battle, that I should imagine each boring bite of garden salad as possessing the sweet flavor of justice; but then I imagine iceberg lettuce with bland ranch dressing and...well, that may be too a high price to pay for reform.

©2008 wpreagan