The world is full of lettuce—kale, romaine, Little Gem, Boston, Bibb, radicchio, arugula, mesclun—and yet for years, Americans have stubbornly clung to the most flavorless of them all: iceberg, which John Waters once called “the polyester of greens.”
Part of that was because iceberg was shipped in heads, which were sturdier and easier to transport than leaf lettuce, at least until the late ’80s when growers figured out the secret to bagged salad greens. This meant that Americans were more likely to find iceberg in their local grocery stores, and maybe they thought there was no other.
But now, like so many other things in our country, the lettuce market is shifting. According to statistics from the USDA, leaf lettuce is now in a dead heat with head lettuce in terms of per-capita consumption. Well, okay, head lettuce is still technically ahead by .1 pound per person, but considering that back in the early ’80s when the government first started keeping track, Americans ate about 20 pounds of head lettuce per year and maybe 2 pounds of leaf lettuce, this is a major achievement.
Over at Bloomberg, Justin Fox tries to make sense of it all. Could it be that the American palate is getting more sophisticated, or that Americans are now more likely to purchase what they consider “health foods,” that is, dark, dense greens?
Maybe, but Fox thinks another explanation is more likely:
What this appears to be is the compounding of two trends. The first is a pushing aside of long-time American staples such as cole slaw and iceberg lettuce in favor of ostensibly more sophisticated fare.
The second is the disappearance of certain ethnic food traditions as that ethnic group (in this case German-Americans) becomes almost completely assimilated. These are often replaced by new ethnic food traditions.
In other leafy green news, the popularity of escarole has slipped precipitously, and Americans now prefer their spinach fresh instead of in cans.
Yes, times change. But I do hope that the tradition of the iceberg wedge salad will remain, at least for a little while, because even though iceberg was misused for so many years, its true destiny was to be a delivery system for blue cheese and bacon, and we should all appreciate that.