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Hail, Caesar Cardini

Legendary salad created by a desperate Tijuana hotelier in 1924 has stood test of time and endless variations

My first experience with the preparation of caesar salad occurred in the 1980s. I was a chef apprentice working in a hotel restaurant that offered French service, meaning some of the dishes were prepared in the dining room by the waiter.

One of those items was caesar salad. The kitchen staff's role was to place the ingredients, such as romaine lettuce, olive oil, lemon, croutons and Parmesan cheese, on a silver tray. The waiter took that tray, set it on his cart with a bowl, and rolled into the dining room where he tossed and served the salad tableside.

It was such an elegant way to serve it and, because of that, I assumed that caesar salad must have been invented in a fine European hotel, perhaps an Italian one, considering Julius Caesar's connection to Rome.

Not quite.

The salad is named after an Italian named Caesar, but that was his first name, his last was Cardini. Cardini had stellar kitchen skills and knew his way around a dining room, but he wasn't showcasing those talents in Italy when he invented his famous salad. He was in, of all places, Tijuana, Mexico, just south of the U.S. border.

According to food historian J.J. Schnebel's website, Who Cooked That Up?, in the 1920s Caesar Cardini owned a small hotel there. Schnebel says in those days of Prohibition, the Hollywood crowd and San Diego socialites would drive to Mexico to party and, before returning home, stop at Cardini's hotel for a meal.

The story goes that on July 4, 1924, huge crowds of people headed to Mexico and overwhelmed his restaurant with business, sending the kitchen into a panic. Schnebel says there weren't enough vegetables to go around, and in those days Americans weren't keen on salad, but Cardini thought he could create one they would go for, and to add drama he would make and serve it tableside.

Cardini didn't have much time to think about what to prepare, so he decided to roll out to the dining room with ingredients he had on hand, which included lettuce, garlic-flavoured oil, salt and pepper, lemon, parmesan cheese, croutons, Worcestershire sauce and some eggs, which he had coddled (boiled one minute). He tossed all of these ingredients together for one of his diners, and it looked and tasted so good the other guests in the room ordered it, too.

Cardini's new salad was an instant hit, and it didn't take long for news to spread around the world of how tasty it was. In Paris, in the 1930s, caesar salad was voted by the master chefs of the International Society of Epicures as the greatest recipe to originate from the Americas in 50 years.

Caesar salad is still very popular, and since Cardini tossed the first one numerous variations of his recipe have been developed, with ingredients such as anchovies, wine vinegar and Tabasco sauce now also making it into the bowl. Also, instead of coddled eggs, because of some people's concern about eating undercooked eggs, commercially made mayonnaise is now often used as the base for the salad's dressing.

Today, I did that and used mayonnaise for a caesar salad dressing that will tastily coat two heads of chopped romaine and can also be used as a dip. I also have a recipe for a shrimp-topped version of the salad where yogurt is used as the base for the dressing, and spinach is used in place of the romaine.

My third recipe is one I called Cardini-style caesar salad. It's not exactly the same as the original one you'll find on the Who Cooked That Up? website, but it's close and full of flavour.

Eric Akis is the author of the Everyone Can Cook series of books. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.