Blog Home Inspiration The Great Salad Debate: One Salad to Rule Them All

Some questions are just too important to ignore, which is why Shutterstock’s content marketing team has taken it upon itself to answer them. After reading this round table discussion about the DNA of salad, we simply ask: What say you?

The Players

  • Jennifer Braunschweiger, representing the West Coast.
  • Bridget Johnston, representing the Midwest.
  • Joe Wolff, representing the Midwest.
  • Kate Voisin, representing the South.
  • Patti Greco, representing the East Coast.

The Great Debate

Jennifer Braunschweiger: Good morning, salad peeps! Let me intro here: The content marketing team at Shutterstock turns out to have a devastating—nay, potentially FATAL—disagreement over what constitutes a salad. So, like good marketers, we decided to settle it on the blog.

These disagreements sort out, rather unsurprisingly in this divided country, over regional lines. I am from California, so I believe that a salad must have FRESH ingredients, possibly still covered in dirt.

This is a more controversial statement than I had ever understood. Of course, anyone who disagrees is wrong.

Joe, want to fight me on this?

Joe Wolff: I am all about salad inclusivity. It’s not that I don’t like fresh ingredients in a salad, it’s just that my Midwestern DNA spirals differently, giving me a heightened appreciation for salads that incorporate mayonnaise, candy, and—on a spiritual level—the grit and determination of Kevin Costner‘s character in Field of Dreams. I think my Midwestern colleague, Bridget, would support this opinion.

Bridget Johnston: Mayonnaise, candy, marshmallow fluff, and—very importantly—Jell-O all can be categorized as great bases for salads!

Jen: Mayonnaise and candy are not salad ingredients. They are barely even FOOD. Have you ever seen mayonnaise with dirt on it? That is a picnic gone horribly wrong. If you can’t draw a picture of the plant it comes from, it does not belong in salad. FULL STOP.

Bridget: In the Midwest, we don’t have to worry about getting dirt into the mayonnaise-based salads. A lot of them don’t contain any kind of vegetation whatsoever. Salads don’t have to have plants in them to still be considered salads. The folks from the West Coast disagree with this . . . but how about anyone from the East Coast or the South? Patti? Kate?

Patti Greco: I’m with Jen that a salad needs to have vegetables, but I’m okay with “vegetables AND”—or improv for salad.

Jen: Wow, Patti. That is very welcoming of you. I would have expected tighter standards, as an editor and all. No vegetation = no salad. That’s a stew, or a bowl.

Kate Voisin: Ok, hear me out—the word “salad” comes from the Latin “salted herbs,” so I think a salad should be 1) savory (or at least not sugar-centric) and 2) bear some resemblance to a fresh—likely leafy—veg that has been dressed or cured in a salty/vinegar component to help it feel complete as a dish.

Daringly, I might suggest that salad without dressing might not technically be a salad, even though I personally prefer a pile of untreated veg.

All other pretenders should have another name. Potato salad? Too much cooking and prep—you have to really boil or steam those potatoes, thereby eliminating the need to dress a fresh ingredient in oil, salt, or vinegar. You are a “pile of boiled roots in egg sauce,” or “side dish.”

Macaroni salad? Pasta. Or “side dish.”

Jell-O salad? Not a thing. All candy. You should also be called a “stomachache,” or to be more politically correct, a “sweet side.”

Joe: Oh man, I was WAITING for someone to pull out the “Here’s what the word ‘salad’ means” card . . .

Jen: Thank you, Kate. Finally, someone is talking sense.

Bridget: So, you’re telling me that tuna salad isn’t a salad?

Jen: Kate has named it well: side dish. Or even: sandwich.

Patti: Do you both refer to it as “tuna salad,” though? I’m just curious.

Kate: I refer to it as cat food.

Bridget: I call it tuna salad because it’s a straightforward, accurate name.

Jen: This is the kind of debate this country needs.

Patti: I don’t ever really refer to it, but if I did, I’d call it “tuna salad.” Or maybe I’d just say “tuna”—this is a mind game.

Kate: Tuna sludge (hates mayo).

Patti: I think a salad is something you can toss. There shouldn’t be a glue-y base.

Jen: Okay, I’m going to stir things up more and say that standing by the freezer and asking if anyone wants salad is . . . sad. I wish we all had access to fresh vegetables.

Joe: We have access to fresh fruit and vegetables in the Midwest. We pick apples in the fall, freeze them, and then use them later to create Snickers salad. WHICH, I’m glad you brought up “tossing,” Patti. Snickers salad consists largely of Granny Smith apples and Snickers bars . . . TOSSED in whip cream . . .

Jen: Joe, you’re determined to startle us all, aren’t you.

Kate: That can’t be real.

Patti: That’s just a dessert!

Bridget: Funny you bring up Snickers salad! I was just going to ask . . . Where do we stand on fruit salads? (Like candy salad or ambrosia?) My grade school cafeteria served ambrosia as a side dish, and it was a big hit for the kids. Really got us to eat and enjoy our fruit. It just happened to have marshmallows in it, too.

So, getting back to my question . . . What are our thoughts on fruit salads, or sweet salads, in general?

Marshmallow Ambrosia Salad
Sweet colorful marshmallow Ambrosia Salad with whipped cream and cherries. Notice how they slipped the word salad in there? Image via Brent Hofacker.

Jen: Why do you not call these things dessert? Why must they be called salad?

Kate: Fruit salad is a fruit cocktail.

Patti: I feel a salad has to have a leafy base. But, I’m also a live-and-let-live kinda person, so I’m just like, “You wanna call it a salad? Go, enjoy your Snickers salad.” (While in my head saying, “That’s not a salad.”)

Bridget: Our grade school served fruit salad as a side dish, so I’ve been conditioned to see it as a side item, and not a dessert.

Jen: It seems to me there are a number of issues here. Most crucial is why people in the Midwest refer to everything as a salad when there are clearly more appropriate words to describe the dishes.

Patti: A lot of these salads sound like spreads to me.

Kate: No, they [Midwesterners] eat it as a side—my mother-in-law recently purchased a container of “strawberry fluff” and I made her confirm that she would qualify this as “salad” (and, I think she’s wrong and I will fight her).

Also interesting to note, she made it a point to tell me she usually only has it at funerals, which I thought really captured the spirit of the thing.

Strawberry Fluff
Strawberry fluff with cream cheese. Yes, this is a salad somewhere. Image via Anela T.

Joe: I am willing to concede that ambrosia does not play in the same ballpark as a farm-to-table bowl of spinach, just like deep dish pizza does not skate in the same rink as NY-style. But, those two things are still pizza . . . just like the former two are still salads.

Jen: “Salad” should put one in mind of a gentle breeze blowing off a loamy field, bringing with it the sweet smell of things growing.

Patti: And, there should be a crunch!

Joe: A crunch . . . like frozen Snicker bars against delicately thawed out green apples???

Bridget: He has a point.

Patti: I think I’m just a fan of west coast salads with more fat?

Jen: The problem with east coast salads is that the vegetables often taste of the excruciatingly long journey they have had to get there. Which is to say, they don’t taste like anything.

Kate: Uh, Jersey tomatoes have entered the chat.

Jen: Fair point, Kate. But Jersey tomatoes are only good for thirty-five seconds a year.

Kate: But, it’s such a good half minute.

Patti: I like my salad base to be green, but I add a lot: avocado, sunflower seeds, chestnuts, pears.

Jen: Oh, Patti: nuts. YES. They come from a tree! And, we can all draw a picture of the plant they come from.

Kate: Jen, by that logic, strawberry fluff IS salad. So, I can’t necessarily agree . . .

Jen: What tree does FLUFF come from, Kate?

Kate: Clouds.

Jen: Washington, D.C.: Pay attention. There’s a way through this mess. Thank you all for coming to our Ted Talk.

Kate: As for a “regional salad” of the South, it feels like I need to chime in for my people. I am from South Louisiana originally, and there is no such thing as a “Cajun salad,” because a vegetable would be most unwelcome at any gathering.

But, sometimes, there is an obligatory nod to vegetables—usually Christmas—a bowl of pale iceberg and nearly white tomatoes. The sort of salad that convinces you that you hate salad, so you don’t eat the salad. It serves absolutely zero nutritional, aesthetic, or emotional value. It’s there to remind you that vegetables exist in a world of meat. Catholic guilt presented as food.

Bridget: Sounds like the vegetarian option on Midwestern restaurant menus circa 2003—the lettuce scraps nobody wanted.

Joe: The ones that didn’t fit on the burger.

Patti: We haven’t talked about cheese in salads—brie, feta. I’m vegan most of the year (except Thanksgiving to Christmas), but I’m a fan.

Kate: Cheese in salad is very good.

Jen: Really, cheese is welcome on anything as far as I’m concerned.

Patti: Bridget, Joe, I assume if you put cheese in salad, it’s of the canned variety?

Joe: Umm, Patti? What kind of monsters do you think we are? Yes, I put cheese on a salad, and NO it’s not from a can!

Bridget: Yeah, the Velveeta is eaten as a side!

Patti: Oh, Cheez Whiz comes in a jar?*

*This led to a string of messages not fit for public consumption. Restarting with Bridget’s (real) opinion on cheese in salads.*

Bridget: If we’re talking a leafy green salad, goat cheese or fresh parmigiano reggiano are the ways to go! Side note: While I am a big fan of Midwestern salads, my favorite is made with fresh baby spinach, cherry tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, either of the aforementioned cheeses, and my honey mustard dressing. Cheeses are critical to this particular salad, though.

Kate: It’s wild to me that Midwestern cuisine ships so hard for sturdily preserved foods—canned fruit in a salad, pasties, summer sausages, etc. A lot of our food is grown in the Midwest! Chicago serves as the stock market for farm goods.

Joe: It’s because we have to stay inside for six months out of the year.

Jen: I feel that the Midwesterners eat green salads as well as “salads,” whereas the rest of us don’t accept “salads” as food.

Bridget: It does sound like we agree on something, though! Salads can have cheese.

Kate: Salads can have anything that complements a leafy vegetable.

Jen: Salads can have any vegetable that complements a leafy vegetable.

Bridget: Another question, to follow the cheese chat, does a salad have to have a dressing or sauce? And, in your opinion, what’s the best kind of dressing or sauce? Or, what’s popular where you’re from?

Patti: Dressing. And not just drizzled on top. Every layer. I go for a homemade one—dijon mustard and olive oil mixed with a dash of hot sauce.

Bridget: In the Midwest, ranch is KING. One of my friends who lived in Austin said that it’s not popular there, because Texas is too “cosmopolitan” for ranch. I find this hard to accept or believe. There’s ranch dressing in the South. Right?

Kate: I think it does need a dressing to qualify. “Salted herbs.” Technically. A pile of undressed vegetables is just a pile of undressed vegetables. I’d call it a salad for lack of a better term, but it isn’t really. Any dressing that obscures the fact that you’re eating a raw vegetable is popular in the South.

Jen: I’m oil and vinegar. Oh dear, I am suddenly feeling like a cliché. I did yoga this morning, too . . .

Homemade Dressings
Nothing better than a homemade dressing. Image via Elena Veselova.

Joe: This is where I think accepting that there are different types of salads becomes very important. For the same reason I wouldn’t eat deep dish everyday, I wouldn’t eat dessert salad everyday. But, it’s still a delicacy.

That said, if I’m eating a salad as a MEAL, then it usually means I need nutrients that will make me feel healthy afterward, which doubly means that I need a light dressing, like balsamic. But, I also have many fond childhood memories of salad drenched in Thousand Island.

Jen: Oh, this is about accepting our differences? Letting people be who they are?

Joe: I’d say yes, Jen. My argument isn’t necessarily about the merits of one salad over another, it’s about accepting the fact that pretzel Jell-O salad serves just as much of a purpose in the world of salad eating that a single leaf of spinach, carefully arranged on a rustic plate with a drizzle of dressing in a vibrant contrasting color, does.

Strawberry Pretzel Salad
In the South, we call this dessert. But, hey, you do you. Image via Africa Studio.

Patti: Has yoga taught you nothing, Jen?!

Jen: But, why do we have to call it salad? I don’t like pretzels. Not a big bread fan, but that is perhaps a debate for another time.

Patti: “Not a big bread fan.” Red flag . . .

Bridget: Agreed, Joe! I’m not out in these streets, eating candy salad on the daily. My typical salad is the one I described before—spinach, a dressing made of dijon + vinegar, some pumpkin seeds to make it exciting.

Kate: The best salad I ever had was just a ton of leafy greens with hunks of raw tuna (author’s note: not the same as tuna salad) drizzled in ponzu. (This happens to be my personal favorite salad “dressing,” but I don’t order that in a restaurant because that would be insane.)

Tuna Steak
Image via AS Food studio.

Bridget: Honestly surprised we haven’t started branding guacamole as a “salad” in Indiana.

Patti: “Fluff is a salad.” * deep breath * Remember what I said about “live and let live”? Me neither.

Bridget: I’m trying to think about if there’s ONE particular salad that is inclusive of all our salad standards. The ultimate salad, if you will. The best I can think of is a taco salad. Does that count as a salad?

Jen: NO.

Kate: I think it qualifies, but I’ve seen some people make it mostly with a tortilla, which is just nachos. It’s a delicate question of balance, the taco salad.

Joe: Isn’t a taco salad just “salad” ingredients inside a taco bowl? Or have I eaten at The Cheesecake Factory too much?

Kate: Any amount of Cheesecake Factory is too much Cheesecake Factory, Joe—said a person who has actually eaten at The Cheesecake Factory, also.

Taco Salad
Image via Brent Hofacker.

Bridget: Looks pretty salad-esque to me. You just get to eat the bowl. A nice reward for eating your vegetables.

Joe: Yeah, this feels like the same thing as eating a salad with bread on the side. I say . . . it’s A SALAD.

Jen: This photo doesn’t show the pound of ground beef just under the thin layer of shredded iceberg lettuce . . .

Bridget: With just a few minutes left, have we left any salad stones unturned here? Do we agree on anything besides cheese?

Jen: Yes! We agree that fluff comes from clouds. But, we have failed to define salad. You all insist on including ingredients that don’t grow recognizably from the ground. I like to think of myself as having a VISION that other people can get behind. And my vision, in this case, is fresh food for everyone.

Kate: A salad is technically salted herbs and Jen is technically a rabbit (what I’ve learned today).

Bridget: We’re in a salad stalemate, it seems. 

Joe: The completionist in me is going to suffer. 

Bridget: I know what I’m making for lunch today.

Kate: Fried chicken? Me too.

Jen: And so it continues, folks! The great salad debate rages on!

Cover image via A. Zhuravleva.