Like a lot of fat people, I have a complicated relationship with salad.
In my early 20s, an older coworker invariably issued praise when I ordered a salad for lunch. “Good girl,” he’d say, while literally patting me on the back. So on and off throughout my life, I’ve eaten salad as a means of minimizing both my body size and the stigma that goes with it.
Given all the baggage of salads, many ex-dieters can’t stomach them. Intended or not, a fat person eating a salad sends a message: “I’m doing my best here.”
Salad is the unofficial food of diet culture, that persistent and damaging idea that fatness must be avoided at all costs.
Rasheed Ajamu remembers how his college friends would observe that he was “being healthy” when he ordered a salad.
“Girl, like, I’m not about to … get raw salad with minimal dressing on it, or minimal toppings on it,” he said. “This is going to be a very voluptuous, very rich, very delightful salad with no restrictions.”
Ajamu and Erica Irving co-host The Gworlz Room, a Philadelphia-based podcast featuring freewheeling conversations between the two Black, queer, and fat hosts.
For her part, Irving once viewed salad as “a meal of deprivation,” but Ajamu set a different example.
“Rasheed makes really amazing salads,” she said. “I think Rasheed was really the one who put me on.”
Irving’s shift in perspective illustrates how fat people, former dieters, and anyone with a weird relationship to salads can still enjoy this most summery of meals. These days, I’ll pass on watery, uninspiring, and mostly fat-free bowls of greens but a salad is one of my favorite things to prepare and to eat. As temperatures rise and backyard gardens begin to bear fruit, few foods taste better than cold, crunchy greens tossed with tangy dressing.
Central to its place in diet culture is the idea that salad is a substitute, a placeholder, a “simulacrum of food,” in the words of cookbook writer Julia Turshen, who grew up in a family where dieting was encouraged. A bowl of mesclun mix was a “centerpiece” of her family’s kitchen. The only other ingredient: straight balsamic vinegar.
“My family was very scared of fat,” Turshen says. “Eating salad felt like this place where I could let go and just eat and eat and eat … it was a placeholder for all the things my family and I weren’t allowing ourselves.”
Until she was around 30, Turshen put salad into the same category as rice cakes or the kind of fat-free, low-cal frozen yogurt that barely tastes like anything at all. There was one exception: The house salad at her family’s favorite restaurant remained a favorite food memory, which Turshen recreated for her cookbook Small Victories.
“Just about everybody” who goes to Gus’s Franklin Park Restaurant in Harrison, N.Y. orders the salad, “a mix of crispy iceberg lettuce, sharp onions, sweet tomatoes, and plenty of assertive bleu cheese, all dressed with oil and vinegar,” she writes in the introduction to the recipe.
“It was this crunchy salad that had fat in it,” Turshen remembers.
The pickles and “health salads” she ate in Jewish delis were another clue to how salad can offer acid and crunch to complement other elements of a meal. These were among the signals that helped Turshen appreciate salads for their own sake, not just as a substitute for something she’d rather eat.
I can relate to this: My mother taught me to order my dressing on the side so I could dip my fork in it before guiding a bite of mostly dry greens into my mouth. Yet I can also recall a time before dieting when my birthday-meal request was steak, baked potato, and an iceberg lettuce salad. The crunchy greens and crisp vegetables were a satisfying contrast to the chewy steak and creamy potato, and the squeeze-bottle dressing added a blast of flavor to my plate.
If you’re ready to leave diet culture behind, Philly-based therapist Rachel Millner advocates for a neutral approach to food in general.
“Diet culture wants us to assign value to food,” says Millner, an eating disorder specialist who describes herself as pro-fat and anti-diet.
Millner acknowledges that salad holds a unique place in diet culture, but ultimately they are no better or worse than any other kind of food.
Recovering from diet culture also looks like experimenting with different foods and ways of eating. Karen M. Ricks, a chef and cooking instructor, has found joy and healing in studying food.
“As a Black woman growing up in the United States, from a young age there was pressure to be thin and basically not eat,” said Ricks, whose virtual cooking school, Our Kitchen Classroom, serves homeschooling, unschooling, and “world schooling” families.
Ricks’ relationship with food was complicated by growing up with food insecurity. Healthy eating is predicated on consistent access to a variety of fresh food. For dieters, food restriction is a choice. But for people without consistent access to food, it’s involuntary. Ricks copied her mother’s dieting behaviors, but the family often elected for nutrient-dense foods over fruits and vegetables.
Traveling has broadened Ricks’ ideas about salad well beyond the standard lettuce-and-tomato offering. In Japan, she discovered a whole new world of pickled vegetables. In Italy, one of her first culinary school lessons revolved around a simple fennel and orange salad drizzled with olive oil.
Adding fruit to salad “wakes it up,” says chef and cookbook author Asha Gomez.
“I grew up in a region of India that was very tropical, with lots of fruit,” she says. “So I don’t remember my mother making a salad that did not have fruit in it.”
It can be as simple as adding orange or papaya to an arugula salad with tomato, Gomez says. “It doesn’t feel like a salad anymore. It doesn’t feel restrictive when you add other components to it.”
Experimenting with different, bold flavors can be another way to interrupt the dieting mind-set. One of my own go-to salads is greens, fruit, cheese, and nuts dressed in a lemony vinaigrette.
“I came from a culture that’s all about flavor … so when I really got into salads, I knew they could not be bland,” Gomez says. “Most of my salads are flavor bombs.” From her most recent book, I Cook in Color, salads include caramelized fig salad with radicchio and hazelnuts, and a Bombay boiled peanut salad with black salt.
I recently made Gomez’ version of Thai green papaya salad..
“The umami on that salad, the fish sauce, the herbs that go in, the dried shrimp, it’s just so delicious,” Gomez says. “It’s a meal in itself — when I eat papaya salad, I don’t need to eat anything else.”
That’s the key to enjoying salad, I think. If you allow yourself to eat a variety of foods, sometimes salad is just what you crave.
Add fruit in any combination:
Crunchy greens (romaine, Boston lettuce, even iceberg)
Fruit (grapes, apples, mango, papaya, pomegranate seeds, any kind of berry)
Cheese (feta, Parmesan, fresh mozzarella)
Nuts (walnuts, pecans, macadamia nuts)
Leafy greens plus cooked vegetables (green beans, potatoes, Brussels sprouts)
Protein (beans, tofu, hard boiled or poached eggs, any kind of shredded meat, canned tuna)
Grains (bulgur wheat, rice, farro)
Pantry ingredients (olives, marinated red pepper, canned artichokes)