There’s a new plague spreading across this nation, according to the New York Times this week. And no, I’m not talking about hookups. Instead, I’m speaking of a terrifying new blight that poses a legitimate threat to one of our most valuable cultural institutions. I refer, of course, to the chopped salad.
I want to be clear about one thing up front: My grievance is not with all chopped salads. The Cobb, for example, is an excellent salad, and one whose ingredients taste all the more harmonious when chopped. The bone I have to pick is rather with the new trend of running roughshod over every salad in sight, regardless of their variety or ingredients. This indiscriminate salad-chopping must be stopped.
I’d like to ask you to picture your favorite salad. Perhaps it’s a Greek, or a Caesar, or a Waldorf, or even a nice Niçoise. Since this is your perfect salad, every ingredient is of course sized to its proper proportion, in accordance with years or even decades of refinement and tradition. Imagine those delightful little croutons nestled among lush ribbons of romaine, or that oblong Kalamata olive resting in the crook of a thin onion slice. Now imagine this Platonic salad descended upon by blades, predigested into a gloopy mess, every last ingredient reduced to the same size, hard-boiled egg halves and baby spinach leaves be damned.
For this lawnmower-like approach to salad making, you can blame the Northeast. The flagship chain of this trend, Chop’t, was launched in New York City in 2001, and in the last decade has spread to more than 20 locations, including nine in our nation’s capital. And it’s not just Chop’t. At Hale and Hearty, a NYC-based lunch chain with more than two-dozen locations, servers often no longer even ask you how you want your salad; they just start chopping. Now, as the Times points out, this epidemic is coming your way: California’s Chop Stop has opened up a new location in Los Angeles, and Subway recently announced that it will serve any of its subs in the form of a chopped salad.
As salad hacking spreads, the tools of this ill-advised trade are only getting more menacing. To keep up with demand, the curved salad-chopping knife known as the mezzaluna now comes with double and triple blades, as if salads require the technology of Gillette razors. In an even darker sign of the times, New York’s Europa Café has installed “industrial strength chopping machines” that can “reduce a pile of greens and toppings into fine shreds in a matter of seconds.” It seems that salad’s salad days might soon be over.
There are a few defenses that the cud-chewing proponents of the chopped salad tend to offer. First, they’ll claim that the chopped salad is easier to eat with a fork. Unless you used to make salad with whole lettuce leaves, this is patently false. In fact, I’m eating an unchopped salad right now—I just barely got a word in as the Hale and Hearty employee lifted his chopper—and the fork is doing its job just fine. My lettuce was prechopped to that normal, medium, fork-spearable size—the same size we’ve been using in salads for years. You might enjoy the experience of watching lettuce get chopped in front of your eyes, but I don’t need to see any of this “theater of manual labor” to ensure me that my ingredients have reached their proper size.
Next, these ruminants claim that chopped salads offer better “flavor distribution,” as though each bite ought to taste exactly the same as all the other bites. The main problem with this line of thinking is that it takes away the freedom of choice: the choice to go after a refreshing cucumber slice or perhaps savor a juicy cherry tomato, the choice to save all your meat for the end, if you prefer. Along the same lines, if you’re eating at work while staring at a computer, chopped salad takes away something just as valuable: the joy of surprise. It’s like taking a perfectly fine bag of Chex Mix and stomping on it, just so as to not be taken off guard by a rye chip.
The worst thing about chopped salad is that the dressing tends to turn all those small chunks and scraps into a homogenous glop, due to the dramatic increase in the ingredients’ surface area. Traditional salads require leaves that are larger than the other ingredients because the greens serve as a levee against the spread of the dressing. There’s a reason that our nation’s most prestigious and tasteful cookbooks—from Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking—make no mention of chopped salad.
It could get worse. If this willy-nilly chopping is allowed to continue, we could all soon be spooning salads out of shakers—an approach even McDonalds had the good sense to abandon—or sipping them out of straws. Do we really want the next big lunch chain to be Puree’d? If you see this outbreak spreading to your salad bar, there’s only one course of action: Tell your server to put down the mezzaluna and slowly back away.