Do Right By Your Lettuce: Kill It

September 11, 2016

This article is brought to you by our friends at Electrolux as part of an ongoing series focusing on seasonal ingredients. Today: A lettuce side dish so "wrong," yet so right.

My lettuce tradition doesn’t include killing—it involves as little contact as possible. Carry them at the top of your market bag. Dress lightly. Toss gently. Eat with haste. But for many, as I learned in Ronni Lundy’s tribute to the food of the Appalachians, Victuals, quite the opposite holds.

In Appalachian kitchens, the first sign of spring is often marked by wilting lettuce and scallions—somewhat gingerly—in a warm sauce of bacon grease and vinegar. They’re not cooked; they’re killed (some would say “kilt”).

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Killed lettuce “stirs deep cravings in the heart” for Lundy. Crisp greens, whether iceberg, romaine—mâche, or arugula—brace a bacon vinaigrette so much better than something like spinach: The grease slides down instead of sogs the leaves. The onion opens up, mellows, from the heat of the pan. The rich, vinegary, bacony sauce pools below the lettuce, waiting for cornbread to be glided through.

Lettuce and green onions, meet bacon grease. Photo by Bobbi Lin

There is, of course, no one right way to kill lettuce. Some douse the raw lettuce and onions with vinegar, then spoon over bacon grease. Others temper a beaten egg in the hot grease and vinegar so the dressing’s a little thicker. Some add hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes, while others (chefs) put a soft-cooked egg on top. Some nix the bacon crumbles. Others use ramps instead of green onions.

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Top Comment:
“Served in a huge stoneware bowl that dominated our large kitchen table she poured the hot, hot bacon grease over the lettuce and onions just as we were ready to eat. The bacon grease would still be sizzling on the lettuce and onions while the vinegar was added. Along with her wonderful corn bread it was a treat. A treat we had just a few times during the spring. ”
— Julia

However routine this mess of a dish might be to many in Appalachia, for a California nitpicker like myself, it’s also rebellious. When you do what you fear, and what you’ve been told not to do, anything goes. So of course I fussed, adding hot sauce and shallot to the sauce as well as an olive oil- or bacon grease-fried egg so the yolk can flow into that sauce.

I know it’s not traditional. I know it’s wrong. I know I want to gobble the whole mess as fast as I can.

Tell us: When have you messed with tradition?

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patricia G. October 2, 2016
Love the way hot juices, say from a roast chicken, mingle with a vinegary salad, and I often put arugula or shredded greens under a hot piece of grilled or pan-seared fish. A way to use some of the outer, tougher leaves of lettuce, too. A very little vinegar or lemon juice, and salt, fluffed through the leaves with your hands, that's all. (The salt attenuates the acidity, btw.) I sometimes put lightly vinegared, salty greens at the bottom of my week-night bowl of pasta. Cuts the richness of pasta sauces, and you don't have to wash up another bowl when you're about to go face-down with tiredness.
Avon L. October 2, 2016
This brought back so many wonderful memories of the Wilted Salad my French Canadian grandma made regularly, using some sort of greens directly from her garden. What was it? Not lettuce, maybe chard. SO GOOD !!!
Julia October 1, 2016
Oh yes! I grew up and still live in Greenville, SC where we call this lettuce and onions. Every spring my Daddy grew the tender lettuce and spring green onions that were picked just minutes before my Niny (Grandmother) worked her magic. Served in a huge stoneware bowl that dominated our large kitchen table she poured the hot, hot bacon grease over the lettuce and onions just as we were ready to eat. The bacon grease would still be sizzling on the lettuce and onions while the vinegar was added. Along with her wonderful corn bread it was a treat. A treat we had just a few times during the spring.
JIM M. October 1, 2016
I've live in Boston (47 years), where this delicacy is unheard of, but not down South (NC) where I grew up, we loved Wilted Lettuce with cornbread (white meal, buttermilk, baking powder, sometimes a beaten egg and sometimes a little flour + salt, stirred together and baked in a greased (Crisco) iron skillet. Heat the skillet so the Crisco is simmering and pour the cornmeal mixture into it immediately. If the top doesn't brown properly, turn on the broiler briefly. The idea is to have a crusty top & bottom with a slightly moist center. Quaker white cornmeal box has a similar recipe on the side. The lettuce recipe: greens broken up (usually spring lettuce), mixed with sliced scallions (spring onions) and broken up fried bacon. The sauce consisted of sour cream with beaten egg, vinegar, salt & pepper, and it was cooked until very hot and then poured over the lettuce! Delicious!!
Barbara R. October 1, 2016
Oh yes, I was born in Pittsburgh, PA and we always collected the different lettuce greens from the garden and my Mom had it, "wilted lettuce" as a "side."
Barbara R. October 1, 2016
My Mom called this "Wilted Lettuce." Yum,yum!"
beejay45 October 1, 2016
I'm a California girl through and through and grew up with the worship of the delicate leaf lettuce. However, somewhere along the line I learned to do something similar with iceberg lettuce, treating it almost like cabbage. And several Asian friends add a chiffonade of iceberg to their homemade ramen because it will wilt a little but it's hard to kill. Also, a friend from the Philippines used to make a noodle dish for her kids (and her/our if I was there) lunch that was noodles poached in broth, then iceberg lettuce stir fried with the other protein/veggie ingredients before topping the noodles (drained of the broth). It was delish. I never stop loving the crisp, tender leafies, but iceberg is so versatile when you cross culinary boundaries.

/end paean to iceberg and on to the recipe...
I'm going to give this a try. I love apple cider vinegar and like bacon, but I think I'd need a pinch of sugar and salt for the first try.
Leslie T. October 1, 2016
I grew up in East Tennessee and my "mamaw" (i.e., grandmother) made this regularly. So good!
LibWP October 1, 2016
My grandmother, born in Maine and lived her adult life in Minnesota, used to make this salad, called it "wilted lettuce." No idea where she got the recipe.
cathy S. October 1, 2016
Both of my grandmothers made versions of this and lived in West Virginia. Sometimes we were sent out to pick greens along the road to mix in with the leaf lettuce. The green onions were sprinkled on top and both added a teaspoon of sugar to their dressings.
Susan K. October 4, 2016
My grandma was from West Virginia too and we had it with dandelion greens and a soft boiled egg on top!
Scott October 1, 2016
This is a centuries old recipe from France called Salade Lyonnaise ...... nothing new or Kentucky about it.
Brenda C. October 1, 2016
You must be a blast at parties. smh
beejay45 October 1, 2016
It may be dated, but it's true: ROFL, Brenda!
Gwynne M. October 1, 2016
We grew up eating wilted lettuce, black seeded Simpson, with hot bacon or fatback grease and apple cider vinegar poured over the lettuce. Finely cut baby onions were on the side, as my father didn't like them. My mother's family are from NW North Carolina. I'be never heard of bacon grease in Cornbread. We always used butter. in the better and to grease the pan.
Ashley M. September 30, 2016
My grandmother from Germany used to make something just like this except she added boiled diced potatoes to it as well and always used green leaf lettuce. Some grilled sausages on the side with good quality mustard was one of my favorite meals at her house.
Kathy S. September 30, 2016
I grew up eating this as my dad's from West Virginia, our family considers that the very best lettuce to serve in this salad is a leaf lettuce...specifically the type called "Black Seeded Simpson". Try some of this lettuce this way, and you'll be growing this lettuce just to make this!
Karin B. September 30, 2016
We do that in Germany with Feldsalat, I have used Mache here in Georgia but they harvest it too early and the little plants are to tender to stand up to all that hot grease and acid. A nice sturdy arugula might work also.
Cheryl September 30, 2016
Yes, I too grew up eating "wilted" lettuce. In fact leaf lettuce was one of 2 things we grew in our very small suburban garden (tomatoes being the other) so we could enjoyed this salad all summer long. My paternal grandparents were from the "hills" of West Virginia, and always had a way with bacon (and lard!). It's nice to see this recipe written down - it helped refresh my memory as the last time I made this, I struggled a bit - remembering the green onions, but not quite sure when to add them.
nancy S. September 30, 2016
The cook in our sorority house used to make this on Sunday nights.....divine! Use iceberg if you want a trip down memory lane.
Brenda S. September 30, 2016
@EmilyC - does the bacon go into the jar raw? If so, that method sounds AMAZING (and rather genius), and would save the mess of bacon splatters on the stove and a dirty pan. Can wait to try it!
Glenda H. October 1, 2016
Cook the bacon first! Add vinegar to pan with bacon grease and a teaspoon of sugar. Heat through and then pour on greens. I cover it for a few minutes to let it wilt.
pat October 2, 2016
Thank you!!
John G. September 30, 2016
I grew up eating "wilted lettuce" and we begged for it each spring -- or summer or fall
witloof September 11, 2016
My aunt, who grew up in rural Illinois near the Kentucky border, used to make this with iceberg lettuce {which is all you could get back in those days} and I always loved it.