Ranch dressing is dumb. Croutons are bad mojo. Shredded cheddar cheese is offensive. A coupla barely ripe tomato wedges are a travesty. Shaved carrots are a slap in the face. Simply tossing these things atop a pile of listless iceberg does not a good salad make. This is the argument being made by Tamar Haspel at the Washington Post, who asserts that salad is an overrated fake health food that we should stop eating for the sake of ourselves, our waistlines, and our planet.

But just because there are bad salads out there—and just because that bad salad happens to be the most inexplicably popular type of salad—does not mean a whole raging case against salads can properly be made. Fuck that salad, sure. But also: Fuck salad haters.

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Haspel’s reasoning goes something like this. Lettuce has no virtually no nutritional value, and salad-friendly veggies like cukes, radishes, iceberg lettuce and celery rank the lowest on the nutrient quality index. Salads often have hidden calories in the form of dressings, cheeses, and various fried meats added, while benefiting from a “health halo” reputation that is wholly undeserved given their outsize caloric heft. Lettuce is, also, the top source of vegetable food waste—there are 1 billion pounds of uneaten salad annually!

The mind reels; she makes a good point. But these things aren’t really relevant when you are talking about Real Salad, or what would nutrition types would call a nutrient-dense salad. This type of Real Salad is actually good for you, full of foods you should be eating, actually filling, that more than counts as a hearty meal, and if done correctly, does not need even any dressing, which is approximately 800 percent of the problem with most commercial salad situations in the first place. Real Salad is not overrated.

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On the contrary, this kind of salad is beyond reproach; the kind you could go so far as to say is a work of art. The kind that is a dizzying array of complex flavors that combine and recombine at unexpected intervals. The kind that feels filling but light, simple but decadent. Perfect for lunch. Perfect for summer. Perfect for life.

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I’m talking about say, a salami and kale salad that includes fennel, raisins, fingerling potatoes, garbanzo beans, Parmesan. Or say, my current favorite salad in the entire universe: the Tuna Conserva salad at GTA in Venice—a salad with fresh tuna that also features arugula, red onions, green olives, hardboiled eggs, capers, tartness and pepperiness, magic, and the kind of deep satisfaction that almost makes up for, say, not having gone to a better college.

Once I had this sort of salad, I was hooked but also enlightened—I had truly never known that such everyday foodstuffs could be repackaged so excitingly, so seductively. Salad is my food crush. But I can assure you, I never laugh while eating it.

Salads like this are not only real but possible, everyday, all around us. The key to making them great is by combining beans or grains with roasted vegetables, nuts, and topping with another protein. Add any lettuce that is not the culinary equivalent of a pile of scrap paper. A helpful guide to making this dumb easy and not that expensive can be found here.

When prepared in this way, I find it hard to understand why anyone would think less of a salad that includes foods you should be eating more of, often disguised in such a way that even if you aren’t a huge fan, you can suddenly tolerate, like, say, beets. The complex flavor profile a good salad offers is a complexity no sandwich I’ve ever had can ever beat. And sure, at first, I balked at the $12 or $15 entrée salad, but if it’s a whole meal and you aren’t hungry in 25 minutes, then this is the same logical dough you’d drop on a so-called regular entrée, maybe even less.

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I want to make it clear that I was not to the salad born, nor am I weight-obsessed or diet-centric. I am neither a person who doesn’t like “real” food, nor am I a person compensated by Big Salad. In high school I worked briefly at Wendy’s, where you could get a classic Bullshit Salad off the dollar menu—an insulting fistful of iceberg, carrot shreds, a Play-Doh interpretation of a tomato and a 15,000-calorie glob of dressing. There was also a salad bar inside, which was bafflingly pitched as a fresher option while containing mostly things that had been emptied by us directly out of cans at least sometime that week. Lots and lots of slimy mushrooms.

But in college I waited tables at a series of middle-class chain restaurants where soup or salad (often offered so quickly in a clipped Southern accent as to be frequently misheard as “super salad”) was the starter. And their idea of an entrée salad was the chicken Caesar, or the Southern fried chicken salad. This was my first introduction to the possibility of salad, but my hopes were dashed as quickly as they were raised. It’s this type of salad that Haspel at the WaPo is rightly railing against, and so should you:

I won’t be the first to point out that items labeled “salad” at chain restaurants are often as bad, if not worse, than pastas or sandwiches or burgers when it comes to calories. Take Applebee’s, where the Oriental Chicken Salad clocks in at 1,400 calories, and the grilled version is only 110 calories lighter. Even the Grilled Chicken Caesar, the least calorific of the salads on the regular menu, is 800 calories.

Of course, salad isn’t always a bad choice, and Applebee’s has a selection of special menu items under 550 calories (many chain restaurants have a similar menu category). Applebee’s Thai Shrimp Salad is only 390 calories (although it has more sodium than the Oriental Chicken Salad). Other chains, like relative newcomer Sweetgreen, have a good selection of salads that go further toward earning their health halo: more actual vegetables, less fried stuff.

I would add the excellent chain Tender Greens to this list as well, but I digress, and they haven’t gone national—yet.

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The point is, yes, shitty salads in shitty chain restaurants are bad. It is OK to loathe them. But #notallsalads. The sins of the Bullshit Salad are not the sins of the Salad Itself. The sins of the bullshit salad—iceberg lettuce, blue cheese, bacon bits, and the like—are egregious acts committed not against us, but against salad itself, which merely wants to help you, please you, offer a wide and fresh variety of tastes, and be loved by you.

Done correctly, a salad should be dark green and diversely populated and wildly flavorful and give you excellent poops. If only given the chance, it will deliver on this promise every time.


Illustration by Tara Jacoby