How iceberg lettuce wedged its way into American culture

And why we just can’t quit eating the crunchy produce

By Caroline Hatchett
Published May 28, 2021 10:59AM (EDT)
 (James Ransom / Food52)
(James Ransom / Food52)

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The easiest way to core iceberg lettuce is to firmly whack the head, core side down, against the kitchen counter. The force dislocates the core from the tight leaf structure, and, with a quick twist, it pops right out.

America's relationship with iceberg lettuce may have once been this simple — and satisfying — but in recent years, iceberg's reputation has wilted under nutritional and environmental scrutiny. On the other hand, iceberg recipes continue to pop up online and in cookbooks; they're handed down, swapped, and treasured. And at some point, iceberg lettuce became a signifier of taste, class, and values: deficient for some, yet irreplaceable for others.

The cultivar was introduced in 1894 by the W. Atlee Burpee Company. Its compact, hardy head allowed California growers to ship iceberg lettuce across the country, first packed in ice and then in refrigerated rail cars. (While most sources attribute the lettuce's name to its icy shipping method, the name pre-dates iceberg's commercial success. The more likely inspiration: the lettuce's "ice-white color and crunchy texture.")

By the 1930s, just as grocery chains began to proliferate and the first mass-produced refrigerators were installed in American homes, California-grown iceberg became America's de facto lettuce. By the time Steve Henson started selling Hidden Valley Ranch in the mid 1950s, Americans were eating 14 pounds of lettuce (not solely iceberg, but it dominated the category) per capita every year, up from just over 4 pounds in 1919.

"Iceberg was part of this new system that allowed for a shift away from local food production to what we have now. It's a fascinating piece of the puzzle," says Twilight Greenaway, who covers food and farming as the senior editor of Civil Eats.

Iceberg fit neatly into the country's increasingly industrialized food system. It's grown in vast monocultures that wreck the soil and require all sorts of chemicals to support a robust harvest. Iceberg heads are 96 percent water by volume, and the crop needs extensive irrigation, often from imperiled water sources, as well as constant refrigeration after it's harvested.

"There's so much waste built into the system," says Greenaway. "Lettuce in the field is two to three times the size of what you get in a store. Workers [picking alongside specialized trucks] reach into the center, pull out the head, and package it at the truck . . . If you drive by these fields in the Salinas Valley, where they've cut lettuce, there are these massive remaining piles of lettuce waste. Maybe a quarter of what's grown gets eaten."

Compounding iceberg's environmental impact is the fact that it's not especially nutritious. (Neither are cucumbers, but I've yet to see a take-down of the pickle industry.) Throw in the occasional E. coli scare and romaine's decades-long creep to leading lettuce status, and it would seem iceberg's demise is imminent. Perhaps iceberg's worst sin, though, is that it's boring: the pale green filler of salad bars, hospital trays, and uninspired weeknight meals.

In 2018, the writer Helen Rosner came to iceberg's defense in The New Yorker, countering food snobs and a storied list of haters (among them Craig Claiborne and Alice Waters) and advocating for its place in the gourmet's fridge. Indeed, millions of Americans continue to signal their approval for iceberg. Even after the advent of bagged leaf lettuce salads in early 90s, the inauguration of an arugula-loving president in 2008, and the tough-love kale salad years, iceberg remains one of the most consumed lettuce varieties in the country. Just last year, growers in California, Arizona, and Florida produced nearly 2.25 billion pounds of the stuff.

* * *

My Grandma Joanne grew up just a few miles from iceberg lettuce farms in Belle Glade, Florida, a town in western Palm Beach County, where farmers still grow lettuce from September through May. As a kid, Joanne's family ate simple iceberg salads more nights than not, and it still holds court in her kitchen.

This winter, Joanne showed me how to make a slaw-like salad with iceberg, a diced Florida avocado (that would have once come from my great-grandmother's backyard), sweet onion, mayonnaise, lots of black pepper, and red wine vinegar. Another perennial family favorite is the Cuban-American "1905" Salad from the Columbia Restaurant (so popular that the restaurant made the name a registered trademark) in which ham, Swiss cheese, olives, tomato, celery, and a garlicky oregano vinaigrette mingle with the crunchy lettuce. In these salads, iceberg's watery crunch works as a palate cleanser, bulldozing through the fat and pungent flavors.

"In the salad world, it's paired with incredibly flavorful, robust dressings." says Carla Lalli Music, cookbook author and the host of "Carla's Cooking Show" on Patreon. "In an Italian salad with pickled peppers, red onion, and maybe cubes of salami and provolone, there's so much salty, punchy, and even sharp flavor. It's the same with incredibly rich, funky, creamy blue cheese dressing. Iceberg is a foil for all these really flavorful additions. It's an important counterbalance."

Lalli Music grew up iceberg-neutral, mostly eating it crammed into Subway cold-cut sandwiches. Later on she fell for wedge salads, which came back into vogue in the late aughts thanks to an iceberg industry marketing campaign. But on a research trip while working as Shake Shack's first general manager, she visited Pie 'N Burger in Pasadena and "watched a burger cook take a slab of iceberg, flatten it with his hand, and put it on a burger. It was revelatory," she says. "Since then, that's what I want on a burger."

The iceberg slab stands up to hot sandwich applications, where shredded or leaf lettuce wilts into "wettuce," as Lalli Music explains in a recent fried fish sandwich video. Kale, butter lettuce, and mesclun just can't compete with iceberg's crunch. "It's one of the great textures," she says.

* * *

"There's no particular prejudice against iceberg lettuce in Chinese-American cuisine," says Tienlon Ho, co-author of "Mr. Jiu's in Chinatown," a cookbook that weaves together Chinese-Amerian history with stories and recipes from Chef Brandon Jew's San Francisco restaurant. "Texture and mouthfeel are as much part of balance as visual cues, flavor, and aroma."

Stir-fried lettuce is among the best-known iceberg preparations in the Chinese-American culinary canon, but "the poster child for iceberg is minced squab or duck served in a lettuce cup," says Ho. The dish comes from a swirl of influences: tiki restaurants and the Cantonese-American cooks who staffed them, American GIs returning from the Pacific front, 1950s hors d'oeuvre trends, and an ongoing exchange between Hawaiian and Chinese cultures. "It's the perfect amalgam of Chinese-Americans experimenting, playing on the idea of what Pacific cuisine was like and what they would actually eat," says Ho.

"Mr. Jiu's in Chinatown" includes a recipe for squab in lettuce cups, though not iceberg. As a chef, Brandon was "trying to pack in more flavor. He ended up using raw radicchio. It's that same idea of crisp freshness," says Ho.

Like Jew, plenty of Americans have diversified their greens intake, if not quite abandoning iceberg. My parents grow romaine and arugula; most of the greens I buy — collards, Swiss chard, watercress, French crisp, spinach, and sorrel, to name a few — come from New York's Union Square Greenmarket. But we still buy iceberg from the supermarket a few times a year, with purpose and perhaps a little nostalgia.

* * *

"What else are you gonna put in a taco? It's gotta be iceberg," says Caitlin Daniel, a sociologist at University of California, Berkeley, whose research focuses on class, equality, family life, and consumption. Daniel grew up in Minnesota in a low-income family, and she and her sisters have a soft spot for iceberg, which, at around a dollar a head, was a mainstay for them. Daniel's work investigates the meaning people bring to food, including how low-income families interpret the cost of groceries based on factors like need, nutrition, food waste, cultural preferences, and shopping habits. While iceberg isn't officially part of her research, I hoped Daniel could illuminate some of the ways iceberg's price tag contributes to its staying power.

By surveying low-income families and observing their grocery trips, Daniel found that when money is tight, families avoid buying highly perishable produce (many tender lettuces go limp after even a few days); they also tend to make one big shopping trip a month, often traveling miles to the cheapest supermarket. "If you do want something that will last, iceberg isn't a bad bet," she says. "It will still be edible after two weeks."

Daniel has also found that many low-income families appear less concerned with nutrient density than a salad's role in the prototypical trio of meat, starch, and vegetables. Iceberg satisfies a culturally defined category, even if (pricier) spinach and kale are healthier.

There's economic motivation to stick with what's familiar, too. "One thing that comes through clearly with low-income parents is their reluctance to experiment with something unfamiliar," she says. "There's this idea that they're more culturally conservative or somehow averse to arugula, like it's just beyond them. Or it's too bougie," observed Daniel. "Experimentation takes economic freedom, freedom to waste money on something you might not like."

Ultimately, Americans eat iceberg because lots of folks, in all income brackets, actually like it — not to mention all the creamy, salty, juicy ingredients it can be paired with — and for all sorts of reasons. Things like nutrition, novelty, and flavor are relative values; lettuce waste looks different in the field than it does in the refrigerator or uneaten on a plate. Truly, the only uncomplicated thing about iceberg lettuce is preparing it.

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Caroline Hatchett

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