Sinking Iceberg ?

Lettuce still seems to be holding its own

January 22, 2003|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

As if on cue, into the Chiapparelli's restaurant server's station steps a busboy carrying a plastic salad bowl large enough to bathe a Rottweiler, filled to brimming with lettuce - iceberg lettuce. Head waitress Ida Talucci was just saying: "Iceberg gets a bad rap."

Another one of these immense salad bowls sits off to the side, empty but for stray iceberg remnants, a little red onion and tomato shiny with the residue of oil and vinegar. Just before noon on a Tuesday one load of iceberg lettuce has already been served and another load is about to be, which must say something about what a dicey thing it is to say what is or is not a trend.

According to food-trend stories and sundry commentaries, iceberg lettuce has largely vanished from the scene, considered a relic of some bygone era along with Jell-O molds and chicken a la king. At best, there have been accounts of iceberg's recent resurrection, supposedly for the sort of retro appeal that might be found in, say, a lava lamp.

In an article on salad greens, for instance, a Brooklyn Botanical Garden Web site notes that the 1990s emerged as the era when iceberg "descended to the status of Wonder Bread."

Then there was the 1999 column in the Sonoma County [Calif.] Independent, wherein writer John Bridges - surely exaggerating to make a point - lamented the fact that he hadn't been served iceberg in a public place since 1973: "The other night, it dawned on me that finally, at age 48, I know what I want in life. I want a head of iceberg lettuce."

But according to government statistics, Americans are eating about as much iceberg as they did 30 years ago - about 25 pounds per person each year. While it's true that romaine and other leaf lettuces have grown in popularity over the years, about three-quarters of all lettuce eaten in this country is head lettuce, mostly iceberg.

That's no surprise at Chiapparelli's, where iceberg has required no revival. Neither have the whims of food fashion deterred salad makers at Sabatino's and Marconi's, to name a few local spots where the signature lettuce was, is and, as far as anyone can say, will always be iceberg.

"We tried that, it didn't work," says Talucci, referring to a short-lived Chiapparelli's experiment with a house salad consisting largely of romaine lettuce and carrots.

The regular customers mostly wanted to know: What happened to the iceberg?

What has happened, says Nancy Longo, the chef-owner of Pierpoint in Fells Point, is a case of iceberg abuse amid the rising popularity of other more nutritious salad greens such as romaine, arugula and endive.

"People are mean to iceberg lettuce," says Longo, who says that on the rare occasions when she actually eats at home, she'll often have iceberg lettuce. While she could only think of one Thai chicken dish in which she uses iceberg at the restaurant, Longo sings its praises:

"It's meaty, it's not like some lettuce," says Longo. "It would have to sit for hours in dressing before it would wilt."

Such is the beauty of this lettuce variety that was introduced by W. Atlee Burpee & Co. in 1894. Commercial growers found that it stood up quite well to the bump and tumble of shipping. Originally called crisphead, the lettuce is said to have acquired the nickname "iceberg" for California growers' tendency to ship it packed in mounds of crushed ice.

California and Arizona farmers still grow just about all of it.

Even its fans acknowledge that iceberg is mostly about texture. You want to add crunch to a salad or sandwich, you put in some iceberg. Romaine comes closest to iceberg's crispness, which might explain why you see so much of it.

"Romaine is the new iceberg; it's the new ubiquitous green," says James Lileks, a columnist for the Star Tribune of Minneapolis. Lileks has established some culinary credentials by writing The Gallery of Regrettable Food, a collection of stunningly unappetizing advertisements and cookbook excerpts accompanied by snide commentary.

Lileks says he knows about iceberg only too well from his upbringing in North Dakota, where folks "would be quite content as a salad to eat the white crunchy spine of the lettuce." This, he says "had no more flavor than the crusty snow that was right outside your door."

In Little Italy, Caesar's Den owner Guido DeFranco says he uses romaine, escarole, arugula, anything but iceberg.

"Being from Italy," says DeFranco, "iceberg is too, too - how can I say? - is too white for me. It might satisfy some people as far as being crunchy, but as far as nutritional ... " and he leaves the implied critique unstated.

It's only a slight exaggeration, as iceberg is essentially water by other means. It has some nutrients and fiber but clearly lags well behind other salad greens in this respect. As a general statement, the darker the green, the more the nutritional value.

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