Grim's Grub: The risqué history of leafy greens

How a summer staple was once considered far more exciting.

Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

There's one food that most people likely eat a whole lot more often when summer rolls around.

Admittedly, they can get it fresh when the weather warms up. It's also great for watching your figure and one of the simplest cold foods you can find.

Of course, I'm talking about leafy salads. We'll focus on lettuce for simplicity.

Some form of lettuce should be included in most salads. Romaine lettuce and iceberg lettuce provide a lot of fluff to a leafy salad that most other greens will lack. Other leaves, when dressed, will form a flat, wet mound that isn't as appealing.

When human beings first started consuming this family of greens, however, the leaves weren't part of the menu. Wild lettuce is related to the dandelion, thistle and various other wild plants. Like similar plants, lettuce produces white milk after which lettuce got its name: Lacticu Sativa, based on lactis, which is Latin for milk.


The milk was considered both a fertility medicine and a minor sedative. The Egyptians are believed to be the first to cultivate it for its fertility purposes as shown by very suggestive relief carvings involving their deity, Min. The plant was considered sacred for this purpose.

Around World War I, the common prickly lettuce was studied as a possible substitute for morphine, though famed forager Euell Gibbons said he had eaten many prickly lettuce leaves as food for many years without noting any pharmacological effects.

Black market lettuce sales aside, lettuce was still used as a food product. It was not grown for its leaves, but for its seeds, which could be pressed for oil. Aside from aphrodisiac effects, the Egyptians used it almost exclusively for this purpose until their cultivation produced a more clustered, robust and likely less spiny head of lettuce around 2680 B.C.

According to carvings on tomb walls and paintings, this lettuce was about 30 inches tall and looked like romaine lettuce.

Greeks, Romans and Persians enjoyed the leaves as a salad much as we do today, though the Romans associated it with infertility, quite the contrary to the Egyptians. Maybe this was because Adonis was killed by a boar while in a lettuce field.

Romans continued viewing the sap as a sedative, eating it just before dessert to make them drowsy later (the dessert probably made them drowsy instead). At this time, salads were served blanched (like wilted lettuce salads) with dressings of oil and vinegar, proving that the classic vinaigrette is almost as old as salads themselves.

Lettuce salads became the first course in meals around 81 A.D.

Though we are focusing on lettuce, it is worth mentioning that Christianity talks about green salad leaves in II Kings 4:38: "One went out into the field to gather oroth ..."


Oroth is rocket, also known as arugula, which is a brassica, or mustard green, and related more closely to radishes than to lettuce. It adds a nice bite to salads.

Steak salad with dijon vinaigrette dressing.

Steak Salad with Dijon Vinaigrette Dressing

Serves one, plus extra dressing

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 3-4 tablespoons vinegar (balsamic or red wine)
  • 1/2 tablespoon high quality Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon oregano
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Granulated garlic
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 8 ounce steak
  • 1 thin slice of sweet onion, cut in half or quarters
  • Handful of shredded romaine lettuce
  • Handful of young spinach
  • Handful of iceberg lettuce
  • 1-2 tablespoons shredded sharp cheddar

One day before, mix the oil, vinegar, mustard, oregano, thyme and salt and pepper. Beat well to emulsify. Allow this to rest overnight or the flavors will be too strong. Also dry brine the steak by sprinkling both sides with salt and allowing it to sit, lightly covered, in the refrigerator.
When ready, sprinkle garlic, pepper and salt onto your steak on both sides, then add oil to a pan over medium high heat. When hot, drop the steak into the pan and flip it when a crust is formed on one side. Remove the steak to a plate to rest when it reaches medium rare (or your preferred temperature), but do not cut it for at least several minutes.

In the meantime, combine the lettuces, spinach and onion. After resting to reabsorb the liquids, slice the steak into thin strips at an angle if possible and place those strips on top of your salad. Stir your dressing again to re-emulsify the oils before pouring a reasonable serving over the leaves. Then sprinkle the cheese over the top.


The deep, nutty flavor of toasted sesame makes this a unique salad for those familiar with sweet or tangy dressings. Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

Asian Inspired Salad

  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
  • 3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar or white vinegar
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon sugar or mirin (if no children are eating)
  • 1/4 cup snow peas
  • 1/4 cup carrot chips or strips
  • 1/4 cup bean sprouts
  • 1/4 cup shredded purple cabbage
  • 1 handful romaine lettuce, hand shredded
  • 1 handful arugula, hand shredded
  • 1 boiled egg, peeled (soak this egg in a mixture of 1/2 soy sauce and 1/2 water if you want a real kick)
  • 1 boneless, skinless chicken breast (if eating as an entrée and not a side)
  • Lemon pepper to taste

Make your dressing the night in advance with the soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, olive oil and mirin. Blend well to emulsify the fats and allow it to mellow overnight in the refrigerator.
In a pan over medium heat, cook the chicken breast with lemon pepper to taste and set aside to cool. In the meantime, mix your leafy greens and toss with dressing. Asian cooking leans heavily on presentation so layer the purple cabbage, followed by snow peas, carrots and sprouts. Slice the boiled egg and fan it out on top.

When the chicken is warm but not hot, add it around the outside edges of the lettuce.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at

The deep, nutty flavor of toasted sesame makes this a unique salad for those familiar with sweet or tangy dressings. Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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