Southern

Do Right By Your Lettuce: Kill It

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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”).

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.

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?

This article was brought to you by Electrolux, Food52's test kitchen partner. Electrolux is all about great taste and the appliances to help you make beautiful meals in your own kitchen. Learn more here.

27 Comments

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."