“Have you had salad?”
“All right, fine then.”
This exchange, or something very similar to it, was very common at our dinner table when I was growing up. It might seem unusual for a couple of reasons.
For starters, the mere fact that we asked before helping ourselves to seconds is probably a novel idea in this day and age where kids very often take it for granted that they can eat whenever and whatever they like in their home.
By contrast, we knew better than to assume that any food was there for the taking.
So she might very well have intended to get two dinners out of the roast we were having that day, along with its usual accompaniment of potatoes or rice, and a steamed vegetable of some type.
Woe be upon us if we ever ate anything meant for another meal!
With nine children to feed on a rural teacher’s salary, she had no choice but to carefully plan her menus and stretch her weekly groceries as much as she possibly could.
That was particularly the case with meat. While beef was not the luxury item it is today, it and other meats were definitely the most expensive part of any – and almost every -- meal.
In fact, no meal was really considered complete without it -- or fish.
In fact, we often ate fish several times a week, and just about every Friday. Swordfish, sole, and cod were regularly part of the meal plan, and they were much cheaper options than meat.
Still, both fish and meat were carefully rationed so that getting seconds on either of them was a rare occurrence indeed.
Mind you, that simply meant that we were probably actually eating appropriate portion sizes instead of the supersized ones people have come to expect today, where meat takes up half - or more - of the plate.
To be clear, we never went hungry. Far from it. There was always plenty to eat in the form of vegetables, potatoes or rice, and bread that were all usually available for second and even third helpings.
But before we could touch a second or third round of our main course, Mom ALWAYS insisted that we first eat a serving of salad.
Unlike many families where salad is served as their only vegetable, in our family it was an additional vegetable portion served by itself as a second course after we had cleaned our plates of the first course.
Mom did not consider any dinner complete without it - so much so that she sometimes included salad for Saturday lunches as well.
She saw it as a vital nutritional component of every meal that furnished us with needed servings of vegetables, particularly the leafy, green ones that she deemed particularly important.
And we had to eat it before we were allowed a second portion of any other foods.
We rarely minded. If we'd grown up with a different mother, it's possible that we might never have learned to consider salad a mainstay of the diet.
But I think it's safe to say that my siblings and I all love salad to this day because it was so much a part of our daily dinner menu growing up.
On occasion the salad was homemade cole slaw that we chopped and prepared ourselves. You'll find my recipe for that here.
But most nights, it was one made of leafy greens. Mixed with cut up tomatoes, carrots, and/or cucumbers (depending on the season) and tossed together with dressing in a large wooden bowl, the salad served as a colorful centerpiece at family mealtimes.
The homemade vinaigrette of choice was cider vinegar and vegetable or light olive oil shaken together with some salt, pepper, dried oregano, and basil in an old catsup bottle.
Or sometimes an old mustard jar served as a dressing container.
The idea was to avoid as much waste as possible and at the same time flavor the dressing by having the shaken oil and vinegar remove and incorporate any residual catsup or mustard clinging to the sides of the container.
It worked surprisingly well and sure tasted good to us, even if my palate has now become accustomed to the flavor of wine or balsamic vinegar that I use in my own salad dressing.
As it turns out, Mom was way ahead of her time in recognizing the benefits of eating salad daily. In the intervening years, studies have repeatedly highlighted the role that vegetables play in human health and well-being.
And leafy green vegetables often receive particular mention for their wide range of beneficial nutrients and vitamins.
She was an avid reader and something of a lifelong student, so I can only surmise that she read about nutrition somewhere in the stack of library books she always had by her chair.
Or it could have been her own sound judgment that instinctively led her to understand the benefits of salad and the other fresh vegetables we also had with every meal.
Whatever her source, it became an ingrained habit that stuck. I happily continued the routine in my own household, and I also serve salad with every dinner meal – even pizza. I advocate it as a sound practice for everyone to follow.
The salads that accompany my dinner meals now might differ a bit from my Mom’s in that they include a greater variety of greens, a wider range of cut-up vegetables, and a vinaigrette dressing made from more sophisticated ingredients.
But the premise is exactly the same as when Mom did it.
We simply cannot have too many vegetables in our diet, and salad is one of the absolute best ways of ensuring that we are at least getting enough.