Salad Controversy: Apertif or Digestif?

Do you serve your salad before or after the main course?  It seems to depend on whether you’re a real American or one of those elitists with European pretensions.  Naturally, there’s a middle way, one that those wishy-washy Englanders take:  serve the salad with the main course.

More seriously, does it matter and how did it all come about?

Here’s my theory.  This left hand side of the big ocean, we don’t like to spend a lot of time at the dinner table.  I believe there are statistic to show that where the French may take up to three hours over dinner, we’re done and dusted in an hour or less.  So when we go to restaurants and are almost immediately served our drinks – and without that revenue most restaurants would go bust – we’re already in food-ordering mode.  And the gap between the ordering and the delivery of the main course has to be filled somehow.  What better way to do that than with a salad? (It doesn’t hurt that the salad is a nice little earner, too.)

What transpires in restaurants tends to extend to eating at home.  Hence the US tradition of the salad before the meal.

On the right hand side of the big ocean – France and Italy in particular – the salad is more of an interlude between the main course and the inevitable dessert or cheese plate.  It may occupy the middle half-to-one hour between the entree and the dessert, when diners are pushing back from the table, revelling in the tastes of the main course, anticipating the pleasures of the dessert and … conversing – another pleasure for which we seem to have less and less time.

Thought of like this, the salad is a punctuation mark in the grammar of the meal.  It is, of course, it’s own pleasure but it also cleanses the palate, preparing it for the next taste explosion.

The Brits?  Who knows how they decide anything?  They still have a royal family.

The food faddists and dieters claim different advantages for before and after.  Some say that a salad before will take the edge off the appetite and replace potentially fattening foods of the main course with hopefully ‘healthier’ salad ingredients.  Others say that to eat the salad after the main course will kill or ameliorate our conditioned reflex to eat something sweet for dessert: the tomatoes or a plain vinaigrette satisfying that sweet/sour craving.

Then again, the ‘after’ proponents claim that the roughage value of a salad will help the digestion – a proposal that seems highly unlikely to me, since everything will be churned together in one’s ubiquitous stomach before it leaves for its further passage through the digestive tract.  Unless, of course, you are one of those decadent French or Italian diners, in which case the salad may be enjoyed a good hour after the main course …

Having spent my life equally in American, European and Brit societies I’m thoroughly confused about the issue, which is further complicated by the fact that in the US we tend toward quite elaborate concoctions where the French and the Italians are often very happy with a lettuce and vinaigrette, or tomato and fennel, or some other  quite simple combination.

And, certainly, one of the finest meals I have ever enjoyed comprised pink English spring lamb, new potatoes and butter lettuce.  Eaten at the same time.

Let us know your preferences and/or theories!