7 min read

Wolmania - Friday, March 18, 2022

Good morning. We've got a lot to discuss today so let's jump in.

Salad Theory

sandwich controversy
We talked a lot about sandwiches, then went beyond. The sandwich debates spun off numerous side discussions regarding the categorization of other foods. Fatefully, one coworker raised the question of whether a salad could be called a pizza.
The answer to that question shocked and appalled us. Inescapably, a pizza was actually a salad.
Many heated lunchtime conversations ensued. We attacked the problem from different angles. We debated the merits of novel definitions. People got sick of it and avoided some of us at lunch.
But the truth could not be avoided. Begrudgingly, the office pedants were forced to reach an agreement: All edible foods are salads.

Salad Theory is wrong

It’s important to be clear right off the bat that Salad Theory is deranged and incorrect.

The first footnote in the piece is number 3. Not a good start and frankly we could stop here and move on with our lives. But I need something to fill up this newsletter so let’s continue by attacking the essential problem with Salad Theory: their key assumptions are flawed.

Salad Theory's Wrong Assumptions

  1. Any sane definition of a salad must at least include foods which a typical English-speaking person would colloquially refer to as a “salad”.
  2. A typical English-speaking person would consider the following foods “salads”: caesar salad, fruit salad, chicken salad, pasta salad, tuna salad, taco salad, and an untossed caesar salad.
  3. A good salad definition should be concise. Fewer terms and conditions on the definition of a salad is more elegant (and by Occam’s razor, more likely to be correct).

Assumptions reviewed

Assumption 3 sounds somewhat reasonable to me, although I don’t know why we are dragging Occam into this. I’d rather go with what Albert Einstein never said: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Assumption 1 is not ideal. Should we be basing our definitions on what a “typical English-speaking person” thinks, or “colloquially refer[s]”? My prescriptivist inclinations may prejudice me here, but I’m simply not willing to let a hypothetical majority opinion be the deciding factor here. In particular when that hypothetical majority opinion leads to a laughable conclusion, e.g., the definition of salad as “all edible foods”. As a wise t-shirt once said, words mean things! So Assumption 1 has serious issues.

Now, that plays into our assessment of Assumption 2 as well. All of these words may be technically correct, but when you put it all together you get to a core misunderstanding - the theory that anything with “salad” in the name is actually a salad. This is really where Salad Theory falls apart for me. Yes, people talk about things like “pasta salad” and “tuna salad” and even “fruit salad”. But if you jump straight to the conclusion that those things are actual salads, you’re merely begging the question (the actual meaning of “begging the question”, by the way). We can all agree that many people call those things “[x] salad” without conceding the point that they are salads. Just because something happens to be called “[x] salad” doesn’t necessarily mean it is, categorically, a salad. Words don’t mean things!


So let’s back up a bit here. Is every thing with “salad” in its name a salad? Let’s start with a simple example. “Caesar salad”? Yes. It’s a salad. “Word salad”? No, that’s an abstract concept, in which “salad” is a metaphor for a jumbled mixture of stuff. An abstract concept is not a salad. Okay, but what about another food item, say, “pasta salad”? No. It’s not a salad. A few chopped up pieces of celery or fennel or whatever don’t change the fact that you are eating cold pasta at a bad picnic. Similarly, something that is 90% shredded fish and mayonnaise might have “salad” in its name but it’s not a salad.

We can come at this less directly, too, with another example of misleading food terminology. If you tell your friend that you’re eating your Lucky Charms™ out of a “burrito bowl”, they will smile and nod while dialing 9-1-1 under the table. A burrito bowl is not a bowl! Or a burrito, for that matter.(It may be a salad, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

So we’ve established without a doubt that the mere inclusion of “salad” in the colloquial name of an item does not mean that it is (or isn’t) a salad. And in the case of some of the examples listed above, e.g. fruit salad, pasta salad, tuna salad, it belies the fact that they are not salads. We know this because the traditional definition of “salad”, which the Salad Theory folks considered and discarded, is (spoiler alert!) actually pretty good.

Salad Theory rules that definition out exclusively based on Assumption 1 (and 2, although they don’t say so). And we have already agreed that Assumptions 1 and 2 are fatally flawed. Salad Theory says a lot of stuff after the Assumptions and the Considered Definitions parts, but as they got those wrong I see no reason to waste our time critiquing anything thereafter (although I do want to note that I respect the boldness of their claim that pasta is basically bread). Let’s take what we’ve learned so far and do Salad Theory’s job for them.

What is a salad?

First I guess we need some assumptions of our own.

My Correct Assumptions

  1. Any sane definition of a salad must at least include foods which contain leafy greens.
  2. Salad-wise, other vegetables can serve the same purpose as leafy greens (containing nutrients, not being sufficiently filling, etc.).
  3. Something that is mostly something other than vegetables is not very salad-y.
  4. Just because a bunch of people use “salad” in something’s name is not decisive as to whether that thing fits the definition of a salad.
  5. A good salad definition should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.
  6. A good salad definition should not lead us to laughable conclusions like “all food is salad”.

They discarded a perfectly good definition for no reason

Now with our new, correct assumptions, let’s go back to that traditional definition that Salad Theory discarded so ignominiously: “A salad must be a mixture of greens.” Setting aside that this is technically a description of a requirement, rather than an actual definition, I’d have to say that this does sound pretty close. After all, salads are a mixture of something - that’s why we use it as a metaphor in the phrase “word salad”, remember? And in fact, the something that is mixed in a real, non-metaphorical salad, is indeed greens. Or other vegetables. But not fruit!

So this definition is in the right neighborhood. You see a mixture of greens (Assumption 1, check) and you think to yourself “I wish that salad were a bowl of mac & cheese instead”. Mixed greens is unequivocally a salad!

But we can do better!

We’re not done yet. Our definition has to run the Assumptions Gauntlet. Let's start with Assumption 5.

This definition is simple, no doubt about it. Unfortunately, it's too simple. Because of course a salad may also be a mixture of greens plus some other stuff (croutons, anchovies, falafel balls, feta cheese, thinly-sliced flank steak, etc.). What the definition is missing is an acknowledgement of, with a limitation on, that other stuff (see Assumption 3).

Also I think we need to be a little more clear that other vegetables can fit into that “greens” category (see Assumption 2).

And finally, I think “mixture” is a little too restrictive - it suggests that the various ingredients must be mixed together. I don’t want to exclude a “composed” salad, lest Instagram influencers drag me (see Assumption 6).

So let’s start with swapping out “mixture” for “combination” - allowing for salads that look good in Millennial Pink ceramics. Let’s also take “greens” and replace it with “greens or other vegetables”.

And then as for the other stuff in a salad that isn't greens (or other vegetables!), I don’t think we should be too restrictive on what it can be (want to put a bunch of chewable vitamins in your salad? go to town). But we need to put a reasonable cap on how much of it you can have before your salad is actually a rice bowl or whatever. I’d say a salad needs to be at least half greens/veggies to qualify.

Oh and there’s a strange and troubling digression in Salad Theory about how technically a soup or beverage can be a salad too. Not on my watch! (Assumption 6 again.)

Finally, let’s do a quick rewrite so it’s a definition and sounds good. Where does that leave us?

“Salad”, defined:

Salad - ˈsa.ləd : a combination of edible ingredients, the majority of which comprises leafy greens or other vegetables, and which is not a soup or beverage

Yeah. That’s exactly what a salad is.

(You may have noticed a wild amount of circular reasoning and unjustifiable assumptions on my part throughout this essay. Guilty as charged. But my definition is right and theirs is wrong so do you really want to nitpick?)

Thanks to loyal reader Arlene for sharing this link with me! I hated it!

Item 2: a list

Billboard Top 10 for March 15, 1997, ranked (Billboard position in parentheses)

  1. Un-Break My Heart - Toni Braxton (3) [amazing video]
  2. Wannabe - Spice Girls (1)
  3. Foolish Games / You Were Meant For Me - Jewel (4) [very curious about how two totally different songs got to be one song on this list, but I'm putting it at #3 solely for "Foolish Games"]
  4. Don’t Let Go (Love) - En Vogue (8)
  5. Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down - Puff Daddy (Featuring Mase) (2) [video is kinda bad]
  6. Every Time I Close My Eyes - Babyface (7) [points off for the terrible video]
  7. In My Bed - Dru Hill (5) [problematic and also not good]
  8. For You I Will (From “Space Jam”) - Monica (9)
  9. Don’t Cry For Me Argentina (From “Evita”) - Madonna (10)

Disqualified and unlinked: I Believe I Can Fly (From “Space Jam") - R. Kelly (6)

Some other notable songs (unranked) from the top 100, 25 years ago:

Item 3: a media recommendation

50-Hour Prime Rib. 50-Hour Prime Rib!

Item 4: a photograph

“Sun Spot Hill” by Jordi Coy

See ya!

Thanks for reading. Is rhubarb pie a salad?