In Los Angeles, John Corbett encounters the perfect salad for straitened times.
It was the most unprepossessing bar and grill, so low-key in fact that when I Googled it afterwards it didn’t come up. Located near the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and North Bundy Drive in the Brentwood district, it was full of lunching office workers and I barely managed to get a seat.
As I studied the blackboard specials, a waitress went past with a tray for the next table. I turned and eyed its contents as closely as politeness allowed. There was no mistaking it. The lively colours. The neat rows of chopped lettuce, tomato, turkey, hard-boiled eggs, avocado and bacon arranged on a large square platter. There was also a liberal sprinkling of crumbled blue cheese and the signature whiff of French Dressing. I hadn’t eaten one since childhood but I knew immediately what I was having for lunch!
The Cobb Salad, let me say right now, is a Hollywood legend, with a back story about its creation that is as resonant as say, Lana Turner’s alleged ‘discovery’ while working in Schwab’s Drugstore. One evening in 1937, restaurant manager Robert Cobb went in search of a snack. Combing his restaurant’s refrigerator for leftovers, he pulled out lettuce, avocado, tomatoes, watercress, celery, chives, chicken, hard-boiled eggs, Roquefort cheese and French dressing. He started chopping, swiping some crisp bacon from a nearby chef.
That night, a culinary legend was born. The friend Cobb happened to share his impromptu salad with was Sid Grauman, the impresario behind Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard where celebrities still leave their hand- and footprints in wet concrete to this day.
And the restaurant Cobb was working in was the Brown Derby, a one-time Wilshire Boulevard landmark that in its heyday was almost as famous as the A-list stars who frequented it. (Clark Gable proposed to Carole Lombard there in 1939 and Marlene Dietrich once caused a scandal by turning up in trousers). Such was the pop-cultural weight of the Brown Derby that a recreation of its unique LA ‘roadside vernacular’ architectural style lives on today at Walt Disney World in Florida.
Thanks to Grauman’s enthusiasm, ‘Cobb’s Salad’ quickly found its way on to the menu of the Brown Derby and thence to restaurants around the world. I remember eating Cobb Salads as a child in New Zealand in the 1960s, partly, I now realise, because it was an effective way for a family to use up leftovers, and also to ensure we ate a good variety of things. And nowadays, of course, in the middle of the biggest economic setback since the 1930’s, the Cobb Salad is a perfect recessionary choice. Its thrifty aspect is no downside because it scrubs up well and like many classics it is very forgiving: it offers a near-infinity of ingredient substitutions.
After my re-encounter with the Cobb on the street of its birth, I looked around for it on other menus in Los Angeles and when I got back home. It was infrequent in LA and non-existent here, so undeservedly unfashionable has it become. When I did find it, it was in diners and other informal eating places, but I think that smart restaurants could easily make refined versions. The acme of accidental cuisine, the Cobb Salad has much to commend it. It’s easy to make, it appeals to kids, and it’s fun for a group to enjoy. I can’t help thinking that in a world that now readily embraces the retro, the Cobb Salad is like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, ready again for its close-up.
Typically, a Cobb Salad consists of chopped chicken breast or turkey, bacon, celery, hard-boiled eggs, tomatoes, avocado and lettuce, drizzled with a crumbled blue cheese or vinaigrette dressing. It can be embellished with chives, watercress or Roquefort cheese and be as large, small, simple or elaborate as you like, so experiment away.
The key thing is that the ingredients should be arranged in rows – preferably diagonally across the serving platter so that the visual appeal of the dish is shown to best effect. A Cobb Salad can be a meal in itself – and in America, that is often a very large meal indeed! Several versions of the ‘original’ Brown Derby salad are in existence, so this recipe is a compilation from a number of sources.
You will need:
1/2 head iceberg lettuce
1/2 head cos lettuce
1 stick of celery
1 small bunch of watercress
2 tomatoes, sliced
6 strips crisp bacon, chopped
2 cooked chicken breasts, diced (I prefer to use thighs: there’s more flavour)
3 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
1-2 avocados, peeled and cut into a fan
1/2 cup crumbled blue cheese (or Roquefort if available)
2 tablespoons chopped chives
Choice of French, Ranch, Blue Cheese or other salad dressing.
Fry the bacon until crisp and drain on paper towels. When cooled, chop and set aside.
Chop the iceberg, cos, celery and most of the watercress (if using) into bite-sized pieces. Place as a bed on a large, flat serving dish.
Chop the remaining ingredients and lay them in diagonal strips on top of the salad greens from left to right, starting with the tomato, then bacon, blue cheese, sliced hard-boiled eggs, diced chicken breast, et cetera.
Sprinkle the chives and remaining watercress on top of the salad and arrange the sliced avocado in a fan shape. Drizzle with your dressing of choice and serve.
Special Cobb Salad Dressing
If you want to make an ‘original’ Brown Derby Dressing, here is one I found at grouprecipes.com:
‘1/4 cup water
1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon (tsp) sugar
1 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
3/4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1/4 tsp dry mustard
1 small clove garlic, finely minced
1/4 cup full-flavored olive oil
3/4 cup salad oil
A note from the Brown Derby: “The water is optional, depending upon the degree of oiliness desired in the dressing.” Blend all ingredients together, except oils. Add olive and salad oils. Mix well. At the table pour Special Cobb Salad Dressing over salad, toss and serve.’
– wikimedia commons.
– Brown Derby photo by Chalmers Butterfield.
And another kind of boulevard altogether… ;-) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZG-NujFfFA