Lettuce: The Last Frontier
“What the hell is that?”
“Try it. It’s good,” said the chef.
“It really is,” agreed the waitress through a mouthful of wilted green mush.
I have eaten olive oil gelato, blood sausage, indeterminate glands, tongue. Brain! But I didn’t think anyone would ever cook my lettuce. Don’t get me wrong. Some greens can take the heat (hi there wilted arugula). But what is the point of cooking, braising, sautéing or grilling romaine lettuce? A head of Romaine, if you’re the type of person who puts things in their mouth without knowing what they are, is approximately the shape of an inflated pear or a voluptuous version of that basket thing at the end of a Lacrosse stick. The leaves are longer than they are wide and have a firm center almost as crispy as a stalk of celery but without that distinctive aftertaste. Often people buy and sell “hearts of Romaine” which is a head of Romaine lettuce off of which the inferior outer leaves have been removed to reveal only the choice, watery, flavorless inner circle. Romaine is a good lettuce. Inoffensive, firm and confident. Everything you want to base flavors around. That’s why it’s the brains behind a Cobb salad and a Caesar. Other lettuces would have too much to say. But Romaine just sits back, relaxes and lets the bacon or anchovies do the work. “Hey,” says Romaine, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll just be here staying cool, crisp and out of the way. You guys have fun.” Romaine isn’t interested in asserting the spicy peppery bite of a leaf of arugula or the bitter “gotcha” of a surprise visit from Radicchio. In fact, the only thing Romaine has is its bite. That’s its calling card. That’s what keeps it on the roll call. Without that it’s nothing, not even a flavor. I mean, let’s not tell lies here. If you find a wilted droopy bunch at the bottom of the fridge are you going to say, “Oh Joy! The perfect flavor to add to this soup?” (My mother actually did that– but she also moved to Seattle for the weather). So, NO! You don’t think soggy, flavorless, green things are delicious and you don’t get off on cumulonimbus peaking out from the nimbostratus. So why is it that I walked into my friend’s restaurant the other day and he brought me a nouveau Caesar of grilled Romaine. Is this all we have left? Has our society declined so far that we must ruin the very integrity of our lettuces? I sliced off a bite of warm lettuce with my steak knife (don’t even get me started on the irony of sawing vegetables with meat tools). It was actually delicious. How or why I do not know. And I do not question. There are some things in life that you don’t need to know, like the exact date you’re going to die or what happened in the series finale of Beverly Hills, 90210.