French

Don't Cut Lettuce With a Table Knife, and Other French Salad-Eating Rules

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June 19, 2017

The French have rules for a lot of different foods—they don’t eat ice cream when the temperature dips below 77° F; they cut cheese to preserve the integrity of the original form—and yet I have found no dish more regimented than green salad. Whether it’s an opinion on when to serve it, how to prepare it, or how to eat it, salad is surely the most rigid part of a French meal.

First, let’s talk about the confusing nomenclature. As in English, “salade” refers to lettuce (or other vegetables like potatoes, carrots, or cucumbers) that has been tossed with a tangy dressing. “Salade composée” is a heartier main course dish—a pile of greens topped with cheese, cured meats, or other morsels. And—just to confuse things—the word “salade” is also the French term for “lettuce.” Distinguishing between these three definitions requires observation, patience, and a strong sense of the conversation’s context. But once you’ve figured out the correct meaning, the opinions quickly follow.

When is the best moment of the meal to eat green salad? In France, there is no “best” time—there is only one time: after the main course and before the cheese. The reasons for this are varied, with some believing salad cleanses the palate, while others claim it aids digestion. “Occasionally, the two are combined, with a cheese platter and a salad bowl on the table,” says Kristin Espinasse, an American blogger who has lived in the south of France for 25 years. Many French people, however, find that vinaigrette overpowers the subtle flavors of cheese, and prefer to enjoy the two separately.

I am terrified to serve so much as a humid leaf to the French!
Kristin Espinasse

Preparing salad, as well, is a topic that elicits much advice. According to cookbook author, Susan Loomis, who has lived in Normandy, France for over twenty years, market-fresh French lettuce, especially sandy varieties like mâche, is laden with grit, and needs to be washed seven times, swirled within tubs of water until not a particle of dirt remains. Drying lettuce, too, is a crucial part of the process. Kristin Espinasse still vividly remembers a meal she ate years ago at the home of her French husband’s college friend, “a guy who lived on Coca-Cola and frozen foods,” she says. “But when it came to making a salad—something he supplemented his poor diet with?—he corrected me for not drying the lettuce sufficiently. To this day, I am terrified to serve so much as a humid leaf to the French!” Once dried, the leaves must be torn by hand into bite-sized pieces—never chopped with a knife, which causes the lettuce to brown.

Salade verte, or green salad, is always just that—green leaves, vinaigrette, nothing else. “I once asked a French woman why the French, known for their gastronomy, eat such mundane salads—always lettuce leaves, not so much as a tomato tossed in!” says Kristin Espinasse. “She replied coolly: ‘That's because our lettuce is good. It doesn't need anything else.’” Like most simple recipes, the green salad relies on exceptional ingredients—and the French take great pride in crafting perfect vinaigrette, which they also call sauce. “It’s the first thing my father taught me how to make in the kitchen!” says my friend, Jérôme. But, he warns, “don’t dress your salad until the very last minute before serving because “the vinegar ‘cooks’ the lettuce, and the leaves are no longer crunchy.” In fact, the French verb for “dressing a salad” is fatiguer—which also means “to tire.”

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Once the salad is on your plate, there are—quelle surprise!—rules about eating it. The most important is to never cut the lettuce with your table knife. If you do encounter an oversized leaf, maneuver your fork and knife to fold it into a bite-sized packet, which you may then pop into your mouth. It’s a complicated bit of politesse with several possibilities of origin—Jérôme’s grandfather once told him it dated from the days of yore, when “the bourgeois silver cutlery oxidized from the salad’s vinegar,” while my friend Thomas says his father claims “you don’t cut the lettuce on the plate, as it would imply that the one who prepared the salad did it incorrectly.” My friend Anna’s Swiss-French in-laws take the rule one step further, completely banishing knives from the salad course. Instead, they “use a small piece of bread to push the salad onto the fork,” she says. “Then you stab the bread with a fork and move it around the plate to absorb some of the vinaigrette, and use the fork to eat it.”

No knife in sight! Photo by Libby VanderPloeg

Of course, one does wonder why the French have so many rules governing something so seemingly trivial. Author Susan Loomis—who devotes an entire chapter to salad in her newest memoir, In a French Kitchen—has a theory. “The beauty of Americans is we adhere to no rules, nowhere more evident than in our food,” she says. “For a French person, a salad is thought out. It's like all things American and French. The French have ‘rules’ and traditions; we Americans don't, so we also don't have discipline with flavors.”

Now if someone could just explain the French rule about keeping bread on the table, instead of on a plate…

Illustrations by Libby VanderPloeg, an artist and illustrator based in Brooklyn; she's also a sourdough baker and mise en place advocate.


For more on French food (sans white tablecloth), head here.

16 Comments

Rochelle July 31, 2018
OK Ann, riddle me this, I travel to Paris 10+ times a year. I never see salads served with a meal in restaurants..not entree, cheese course, nor offered as a side.It is generally a side of some form of potatoes. Is there some sort of salad embargo or otherwise hidden (local) lingo that I am missing ? Txs
 
Emilien June 23, 2017
I'm Belgian and we have about the same traditions about bread (and a lot of food related things)<br />the funny moment explaining that bread belongs to everyone is when there is very little bread left on the table... then the kids,and the great kids called adult, try to steal the bread in front of each other. Especially the last piece wich you can barely fight for.
 
Carrie S. June 21, 2017
"Now if someone could just explain the French rule about keeping bread on the table, instead of on a plate…"<br /><br />I'm French, and I laughed out loud at your great piece, Ann! I recognized many scenes from my everyday life! Now for your question ("if someone could just explain the French rule about keeping bread on the table, instead of on a plate"), the answer that immediately comes to my mind is that it would be... odd? In French, we have a saying: "Pain sur table n'a pas de maître" ("Bread on the table has no master"). Its place is on the table. And why would you put it on a plate? If it's a baguette, you break it by hand. If it's a loaf, you have it sliced at the boulangerie. And even if you sliced the bread yourself with a bread knife in your kitchen for your guests, then you may serve it on a wooden board or a basket. But I dunno, putting it on a plate makes it look like it's a dish, a fussy thing, a finite entity, while it's something everyone should help themselves with as they wish... If of course your host has bought enough bread -- oh, and that is to be hoped! It's always awkward when we have a meal together with friends and someone suddenly exclaims in the middle of the meal: "there's no bread left!" Terrible.
 
joie June 20, 2017
Being from the "Salad Bowl of the World" I think I have had salade almost every night of my life. I was taught to tear the softer leaf lettuces, however do use a knife on iceberg(I know some hardly consider it lettuce) or hearts of romaine. Sometimes I will slice it down the spine and then tear. <br />
 
chez D. June 20, 2017
"That's because our lettuce is good. It doesn't need anything else." - Love that! ;)
 
Jennifer June 19, 2017
Other than eating salad after the main course (which I increasingly do, even though we have no cheese course--it just works better for me, no explanation needed), all these rules were ones that my mother taught me in the benighted 60s. We lived in the suburbs of NYC; she had grown up in coal country. She was not a high-falutin' woman. But touch lettuce with metal? never. Etc. The reason French lettuce needs to be repeatedly soaked is that it's grown in real soil, not in antiseptic medium. Trying buying a real head of lettuce (or some truly lovely mesclun, not the ersatz stuff in a plastic tub)--it actually has flavor, and of course grit. My mother knew that--she grew up on bunny & squirrel (there was no money for meat) and homegrown veggies in WWII. Nothing fancy, just real food.
 
Abra B. June 19, 2017
Actually, the bread on the table rule is pretty straightforward. Bread is considered to be communal property, belonging to everyone, so it's impolite to imply that you're keeping it from others that might need or want it. In practice, of course, no one is going to take your personal piece of bread from in front of your plate, but it's a gesture of generosity and communal spirit.
 
Nick June 19, 2017
Minor correction but there is a French word that relates specifically to lettuce, it is "laitue". Calling lettuce salad is no great mystery of French culture, the same occurs routinely in English when people go to the grocery store it isn't uncommon for someone to say that they bought salad when in reality they bought lettuce.
 
Author Comment
Ann M. June 19, 2017
Yes, laitue is another word for lettuce (and I love the names of lettuces in French – my favorite is feuille de chêne). Personally, in English I wouldn't describe a head of lettuce as a salad, but maybe that's a regional thing? I think it's interesting that WordReference defines "salade" as "légume vert," but "salad" is "cold food with lettuce."
 
Nick June 19, 2017
It's all rather whacky isn't it!? I feel that the WordReference definitions have almost merged at this point. I know anglos who claim that potato salad is not salad at all due to a lack of greenery yet the French have some salads that while vegetable-based are barely "vert" anymore, I'm thinking of that Parisian favorite of steamed leaks that have gone yellow. Globalization in conjunction with hyper-regionalism have left us with some interesting nuggets!
 
Author Comment
Ann M. June 19, 2017
To the horror, I'm sure, of l'Académie Française! :)
 
Nick June 19, 2017
No one wants to go there...though maybe they'd be less grumpy this Monday having just come off of "le weekend" ;)
 
Gemma1122 June 19, 2017
"Don't drink wine during the salad course. It insults the wine." <br /><br />This was the rule in my French boyfriend's house when I was younger. I think it has something to do with the vinegar in the salad dressing.
 
Author Comment
Ann M. June 19, 2017
So true! And I do like this French turn of phrase – makes it easy to remember :)
 
Betty G. June 19, 2017
My mother was a salad lover in all forms. She also taught that lettuce is always hand torn into bite size pieces & never cut with a knife even on one's plate if the pieces were too big, one used a fork to make them politely mouth worthy.
 
Author Comment
Ann M. June 19, 2017
Love these memories, Betty. Thanks for sharing!