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MagazineEpicurean AdventuresDiningHail, Caesar: The Origin of the Caesar Salad at 100

Hail, Caesar: The Origin of the Caesar Salad at 100

Americans are precious about food lore, particularly the origins of their favorite dishes. Tell them that French fries are Belgian or that pasta originated in China, and their eyes widen almost as fast as their belts tighten.   

Entire movies are made from food stories — Netflix’s Unfrosted, the comic origin story of the Pop Tart, comes to mind, and The Founder, a 115-minute movie about McDonald’s starring Beetlejuice. Naturally, these stories should be taken with a grain of salt (or sometimes an entire salt mine). A case in point is the venerable Caesar Salad, which purportedly celebrated its centennial this Fourth of July.

David Burke’s New American Classics: A Cookbook traces the salad’s origins to a particularly busy July 4 evening in 1924, when Tijuana restaurateur Caesar Cardini improvised it table-side to impress his Hollywood clientele. Caesar’s Place (not the grill, nor the palace, for that matter) was a hotspot for movie stars in the 20s who did their Prohibition-era drinking south of the border.

“Prepared tableside, a coddled egg, the pièce de résistance in the creation of a creamy, stick-to-your-ribs dressing, the show came with the shaving of the cheese, the mashing of the anchovies, and the breaking of the egg over the crisp romaine leaves,” wrote collaborators Burke and Judith Choate in 2006.

Et tu, Crouton?

However, as they say, failures are orphans, and success has many fathers. Among the salad daddies is filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, at least by proxy via his brasserie Cafe Zoetrope. Printed proudly atop the North Beach establishment’s menus is a claim that the Caesar Salad was invented there, or at least in the same building. Five years ago, however, Soleil Ho, writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, did some sleuthing and deduced that it’s doubtful that the salad was invented in San Francisco, let alone on the premises that would eventually become Cafe Zoetrope.

“The menu ties it to a San Franciscan ‘Caesar’s Grill,’ one of the building’s original tenants, a claim repeated by Chronicle reporter Jim Walls in 1959, though I could find no evidence tying Cardini to that restaurant,” Ho observed. She also pointed to a 1911 classified ad in the Chron archives about a lost purse at Caesar’s Grill, “when Cardini would have been a 15-year-old boy living in northern Italy.”

Caesar's Grill

That said, if Coppola is inclined to make his own foodie movie about an Italian whiz kid restaurateur who innovates a namesake salad in the last days of Barbary Coast-era San Francisco, made with the vision and sweeping scope for which his films are known (like Megalopolis, in which Adam Driver plays…wait for it…Caesar!)… Suffice it say, I’m in.

But hold the anchovies.

Daedalus Howell
Daedalus Howellhttps://dhowell.com
Welcome to one man's search for meaning through media making. Whether you're an active "creative," or an artist-adjacent culture serf, perhaps you will find my (mis)adventures in the screentrade, publishing, journalism and other arts edifying and inspiring — or at least mordantly humorous. More about me here.

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