All Hail, Caesar!


It must have been a slow news week at The Seattle Times. Whatever reason, the paper recently lavished much news space on Bethany Jean Clement’s irritation over being served bread crumbs (oh, the culinary horror!) atop her Caesar salad instead of her favored croutons.

Despite the food writer’s tantrum, crumbs vs. croutons doesn’t sound like something that should take precedence over more weighty gourmet topics like finding the region’s best pho or banh mi sandwiches. However, the controversy did draw nearly 100 comments from Times readers wanting to weigh in, pro and con croutons.

All the resulting furor brought me back to the time I tasted my first Caesar salad. It was a pivotal moment in those non-epicurean days, occurring before the salad became a popular, standard offering across the nation.

As lore has it, Caesar salad was invented by Caesar Cardini, an Italian chef who owned a restaurant in San Diego, California. In the 1920s, Cardini moved to Tijuana, Mexico, to avoid Prohibition. Supposedly, he invented the salad on July 4, 1924. The American holiday had drawn so many to his Tijuana kitchen that he ran out of supplies and concocted the dish with what he had on hand.

While that’s the history according to Caesar’s daughter Rosa, there’s another origin story. That tale names Caesar’s brother Alex Cardini as the real inventor. Alex, a World War I aviator, allegedly concocted the dish, first called the “Aviator Salad.” But no matter who gets credit, Caesar salad was destined to become the food rage of Hollywood and a menu staple in Southern California.

Many years later, Caesar salad finally arrived in the provinces. In my case, I would first savor a Caesar salad during a 1970s family reunion in Powell, Wyoming. The salad was introduced to us by Shang, my hip aunt who lived in San Diego. She arrived at the family homestead in Powell, a small farming community, carrying the main ingredients in her luggage.

It’s something only my madcap aunt Shang would do. She was always trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to teach contemporary ways to her backwoods relatives.  At previous reunions, Shang had introduced us to guacamole and Cobb salad. Born Lillian in Kalispell, Montana, she had acquired her nickname while playing “Shanghai Lil” on her trumpet as she led the town’s Fourth of July parade on horseback.

Shang (we all called her that) gathered my farm-raised cousins and me to watch her prepare the salad and turn us into trendsetters. The Caesar recipe, as Shang assembled it, called for romaine lettuce, much garlic, fresh lime juice, anchovies, Worcester sauce, grated Parmesan, and croutons. All went well with Shang’s preparation until it came time to add the minute-long coddled egg. She cracked the egg, discarded the white, and mixed the yolk into the already dressed salad.

Silence ensued. Then you could hear first one dumbfounded cousin and then another professing horror. “Not raw egg!” they shuddered.

When the time came for the family dinner, the salad at first had few takers even with Shang’s urging, “Try it, you’ll like it.” Curiosity eventually overcame caution and eventually the cousins all grudgingly tasted the exotic concoction and discovered that it was edible if strange. They’d instantly became part of the cognoscenti with their new-found sophistication.

In the overall scheme of things, I don’t know what to make of Times food writer Clement’s obsession over the need for croutons atop the iconic salad. But I do know that my Powell cousins, long ago initiated, are still preparing Caesar salad the way Shang taught them, complete – not with bread crumbs – but with proper garlic croutons. It seems Shang is still leading the parade.

Jean Godden
Jean Godden
Jean Godden wrote columns first for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and late for the Seattle Times. In 2002, she quit to run for City Council where she served for 12 years. Since then she published a book of city stories titled “Citizen Jean.” She is now co-host of The Bridge aired on community station KMGP at 101.1 FM. You can email tips and comments to Jean at


  1. Nice story, Jean. As you may know I pine for certain dishes if I cannot find them.

    An interesting note to add to the provenance: One cannot order a Caesar salad in Italy. They don’t exist, outside of perhaps a handful of over-priced places catering to American tourists. Lots of yummy salads yes, but not that one. Indeed the mix would likely horrify most Italian chefs with a loud “Che schifo!” (How disgusting!)
    Also not found here are Chicken Parm, Chicken Alfredo, or Pepperoni Pizza.

    But you continue to enjoy it. Just as I will occasionally consume a chicken fried steak.

  2. When I was in Estonia in the 1990s, a fellow Washingtonian, Keith Callow, was there helping the country formulate a Western judicial system. He was homesick for Seattle cuisine and was thrilled when he discovered the first Caesar salad was being offered at a restaurant in a nearby community.
    We rushed out together to sample Estonia’s first Caesar. Sadly, it was a disappointment, wilted Romaine lettuce, unassertive dressing, chards of some tasteless cheese and a few lumps of soggy bread.
    Not the Caesar that Keith had hoped for.
    As I was soon returning home, I could endure a disappointment; but Keith was truly bereft. It would be a long while before he’d taste a real Caesar.


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