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The Story Behind The Most Popular Salad in New York

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We partnered with California Walnuts to trace the history of New York's most storied salad. Add your version to their timeline by submitting an original recipe to their contest here. Read on to find out more.

Today: The Waldorf salad gets a makeover—again, and again, and again. 


When Chef David Garcelon arrived at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel close to four years ago, he was surprised to find that not one of the hotel’s several restaurants was serving the exact same recipe for its most popular dish: the Waldorf salad. Though it was being ordered 20,000 times a year, it wasn't being prepared the same way across different outlets in its original home. Once you dig into the history of one of the last century's most ubiquitous dishes, this oversight doesn't seem so odd: Everybody has their own opinion on how it should be made. 

“Things go in and out of vogue,” Matt Sartwell, Managing Partner of Kitchen Arts and Letters, says matter-of-factly as we pore over several turn-of-the-century cookbooks at his bookshop. Some are worn with age, some are better preserved, and almost all have that mustiness that pleasantly lingers with you after leaving a museum or library.


We weren't talking about recent food trends. We were studying the Waldorf salad recipe (and the ways it has changed).

It’s widely known that Oscar Tschirky—the storied, original maître d'hôtel of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel—was the creator of the notorious salad. The original recipe can be found in his cookbook, The Cookbook by Oscar of the Waldorf, with only three things: apples, celery, and mayonnaise (no walnuts to be found). The most intriguing part of the history of the dish that he’s most known for—and a testament to the recording of recipes—is how many iterations it's been through in its lifetime. In each cookbook Matt and I looked through, not one recipe for the salad had the same ingredients.


Left: The Cookbook by Oscar of the Waldorf; Right: Oscar with chef and a Camp Fire girl

Over time, walnuts seem to have become integral to the mix, first showing up in a recipe, Chef Garcelon told me, in a cookbook by Escoffier, and then more widely found in 1928’s The Rector Cook Book. Matt mused that the addition could have been as off-handed as someone’s father owning a walnut farm, or a chef who thought the salad lacked balance and savoriness. The ingredient list continued to grow as years went on, possibly due to nothing but someone’s personal interpretation.

Original Waldorf salad recipe

The version in George Rector's Home at the Range from 1939 feels thoroughly modern with bits of bitter greens and a dusting of paprika. American Food by Evan Jones has a recipe that includes mayonnaise made with walnut oil. Matt told me his mom always added raisins, and a Food52 staffer said her parents even used whipped cream instead of mayonnaise. Gelatin and cider vinegar come into the mix in The American Century Cookbook's recipe, and there’s also been talk around the office of additions like marshmallows and hard-boiled eggs.


Left: Portrait of Oscar Tschirky; Right: Waldorf Astoria Park Avenue entrance in the 1940s

As noted by Evan Jones in American Food, the salad was born for a 1500-person “society supper” to celebrate the opening of the Waldorf in the spring of 1893. It came to life in the heyday of cold salads, when midday meals touched the edge of the afternoon. Sweet salads were all the rage, even when it seemed like a fad in the early 20th century. (It’s mentioned in American Food that Sheila Hibben, cookbook writer and journalist at the New Yorker for the first part of the 1900s, thought the Waldorf salad was a “mixed blessing.”)

“Society's accepted notions of mealtimes and components of meals have changed drastically over time,” Matt reminded me as we pawed through recipes, each reinterpreted for a new decade.

According to Chef Garcelon, Oscar was a celebrity in his own right. Before the time of highly visible chefs, he said, Oscar was the one who spoke to guests—he was the person who was educating people about food and wine at that time. Oscar was born in Switzerland and worked his way up during the rise of the restaurant, from unknown busboy to maître d' of Delmonico’s and then, subsequently, the Waldorf.

Stepping into a strong culinary tradition like the Waldorf’s, Chef Garcelon synthesized all of the hotel's different preparations for the salad and decided to reimagine it in his own way: Today, he uses julienned green and red apples, celery root brunoise, truffle oil, candied walnuts, microgreens, and an emulsified vinaigrette. To him, this brings the Waldorf salad up to speed for 2015. And despite its age and divisive reputation, it’s still the most ordered dish on the menu. Talk about staying power.

Oscar and his team celebrating the end of prohibition

Classic Waldorf Salad

Serves 4

1 cup diced apples
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup mayonnaise
5 leaves of escarole or chicory, chopped and stems removed
A few pinches of paprika

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Last photo by Alpha Smoot; all archival photography courtesy Waldorf Astoria New York and Towers of the Waldorf Astoria New York.

We partnered with California Walnuts to trace the history of New York's most storied salad. Submit your version to their contest here for a chance to be featured on the menu of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel's Sunday Brunch menu.

Tags: waldorf salad, walnuts, food history, cookbooks