November 13, 2006
What's in a Name? It's a Toss-Up

Everywhere, Caesar salad. Nowhere, Alex salad. Where's justice in the culinary world? Well, if Carla Cardini isn't upset about this - and she isn't - I guess I won't be, either.

Carla Cardini, sommelier at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Houston, was a fellow judge at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition this weekend. She's the granddaughter of Alex Cardini, who with his brother Caesar landed in Tijuana from their native Piemonte in northern Italy not long after World War I.

During a break in the judging, she briefed me on some family history. Caesar Cardini generally is recognized as the creater of the Caesar salad, which he is widely believed to have tossed for the first over the Fourth of July weekend in 1924 in Tijuana. That date, however, long as been questioned. At least one culinary historian has said the first Caesar salad wasn't made until more than a decade later. The late Julia Child, on the other hand, swore she had a Caesar salad made by Caesar himself when she visited his restaurant in Tijuana "in 1925 or 1926."

Carla Cardini isn't sure when the salad first was tossed, but she's convinced it was the inspiration of her grandfather Alex, not Caesar. The two had neighboring and competing restaurants in Tijuana, but when Alex's Fior d' Italia burned down he went to work at Caesar's Place and Hotel, and there introduced the salad.

According to her version of the salad's history, it wasn't conceived to entertain at tableside Hollywood celebrities who flocked to Tijuana to drink and party during Prohibition. Alex Cardini actually first tossed the heady blend of romaine, garlic, olive oil, Parmigiano, Worcestershire sauce, coddled eggs and anchovies for a group of hungover military pilots from Rockwell Field at San Diego. "He called it the 'aviator salad'," said Carla Cardini. She figures that name didn't stick because visitors to Tijuana got in the habit of saying, "Let's go to Caesar's and have that salad." Thus, the name of the restaurant rather than the aviators became closely identified with the salad.

Subsequently, when Alex Cardini moved to Mexico City, where he opened three restaurants, the salad was listed on his menu as "the original Alex Cardini Caesar salad."

Carla Cardini would like the record set straight on a couple of other misconceptions concerning the salad. For one, the salad originally included anchovies, but they were pulverized into a paste that was used to coat the croutons. Secondly, lime juice rather than lemon juice originally was used in the dressing of the salad, though most recipes today customarily call for lemons.

So, should every restaurant that offers a "Caesar salad" rewrite its menu to "Alex salad?" Carla Cardini has another suggestion: Why not call the salad by its original name, "aviator salad?"

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