Roger B. Swain: Lettuce On First

Sometimes iceberg still wins the contest for lettuce superiority.

Sometimes iceberg still wins the contest for lettuce superiority.

It is where salad bars begin: a big bowl of shredded lettuce. A generous base is the foundation of salad, our excuse for heaping on the cheese, the bacon bits, and a drench of dressing. The lettuce is iceberg, a crisphead type that is the second most consumed vegetable in this country after potatoes (and that includes all the varieties of potatoes lumped together).

Iceberg lettuce is grown primarily in Salinas, California, The Salad Bowl of the World. Each head, stripped of its wrapper leaves, encased in plastic, and chilled, manages to cross the continent in less than a week. From this perspective, 3,000 miles away, it is hard to see iceberg as anything but an industrial commodity. Some label it a “polyester vegetable”: weak flavored, nutrient poor, mostly water.

Sure, there are other more nutritious lettuces, and one can buy them in the supermarket: dark green heavy-ribbed romaine, tightly corseted heads of red or green loose-leaf types. There has even been a proliferation of hydroponically grown Boston bibb types usually sold inside a plastic dome with the roots still attached.

But in season, lettuce is always best harvested from one’s own garden. This first offering from the salad bar is also the first offering from the garden. Sown alongside the first peas, lettuce is ready to harvest when those peas are just coming into bloom.

Black Seeded Simpson with its chartreuse leaves, the frilly green Saladbowl, Red Sails, Flashy Troutback, Deer Tongue, Buttercrunch… The list goes on and on. Plant them early (and again, and late.) Eat the thinnings. Mix the colors on your plate. But before you claim that one variety really tastes better than another you have to sample each one undressed.

When lettuce is in your mouth, color disappears. The water that is the primary ingredient of all lettuces is obvious, but the nutrient content can really only be determined by chemical analysis. The fact that iceberg is the highest in water and lowest in everything else has led home gardeners to renounce its culture. That and the fact that many iceberg lettuces like cool temperatures, and will bolt quickly in heat. (Ocean air and fog from Monterey Bay keep the lettuce fields cool in Salinas.) Here in New Hampshire iceberg lettuce is as rare in backyard gardens as artichokes, that other Californian import.

All lettuces will bolt eventually, sending up a seed stalk and blooming. At which point they become much more bitter, the result of sesquiterpene lactones being produced in the milky latex, the same chemicals that render wild lettuce inedible from the start and which breeders have selected to reduce, except in chicories where it is desired.

To let some of your lettuce plants bolt and set seed – and to save that seed for replanting – or to let the lettuce reseed itself is to understand that lettuce is indeed a plant and not just a nutritional commodity.

The same goes for iceberg. Let me encourage you to plant a row of an iceberg lettuce called Summertime. Developed by Dr. James Bagget at Oregon State University, it is one of the few iceberg lettuces that can take the heat. Sown in the spring it develops dark green wrapper leaves with frilled edges surrounding a tight light-green head. In the garden a row of them is as beautiful as the lettuces in the garden of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit. Harvest one of these heads, cut a wedge of it, and put a chunk in your mouth. You will be delighted by its shattering crispness, a mouthfeel that is unique to iceberg lettuce. This characteristic is what keeps iceberg in the salad bars and refrigerator drawers.

There will always be people who tell you that romaine is best or that a certain leaf lettuce trumps all. But in the titanic contest over lettuce superiority, the fact is that, in the home garden, the iceberg sometimes still wins.

Roger B. Swain

If you’re looking for lettuce similar to the variety Roger mentions in this post, be sure to give our Winter Density a try. It’s one of our all-time favorites!

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