Wedge issue: Iceberg lettuce takes on kale

The nutritional lightweight is cool again as chefs dress up some retro greens.
Joanne Latimer
Iceberg lettuce takes on kale
Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times

What will become of iceberg lettuce, the Wonder Bread of leafy greens? Not to worry. The hipsters are reclaiming it, championing its virtues and turning a blind eye to its nutritional shortcomings. “It has been much maligned and is often the punchline to jokes about bad food, but you don’t hear people hating on celery, which is nothing but empty calories,” noted Tara O’Brady, the St. Catharines, Ont.-based blogger behind Seven Spoons, where she recently posted a recipe for a wedge salad. It received 78 comments laced with nostalgia—and uncertainty. “It will take a lot for me to get over the iceberg lettuce salads of my childhood, graced with mealy January-in-the-Canadian-Prairies tomatoes,” said “Shanley,” in a typical comment.

Shanley, we hear you. “My grandmother’s secret ingredient to the iceberg wedge was a sprinkling of white sugar before dressing it with homemade mayonnaise,” recalled an appalled Shelagh Egar, an Ottawa retiree. “In the Maritimes, it was all we had.”

Today’s young chefs don’t have those bad associations, and next-generation salads are popping up on menus with a modern twist, just as designer poutine morphed from the old Quebec standard. The mealy tomato traditionally served with the wedge has been upgraded and fancier toppings are in vogue. In Vancouver, Cork & Fin restaurant serves theirs with shrimp and herb cream. Chef Andrey Durbach garnishes his with shaved red onion and Tomatogems at Cafeteria. And Nouveau Palais in Montreal pairs it with a Lebanese cucumber. Chef Gita Seaton loves the “trash cachet” of the iceberg wedge, but makes her blue cheese dressing with Fourme d’Ambert, one of France’s oldest cheeses.

“Most people credit Daniel Boulud at DBGB in New York for bringing back the wedge, although it never really left the steak houses,” said Michael Moffatt, executive chef at Play Food & Wine in Ottawa. Moffatt and business partner Stephen Beckta tried Boulud’s iceberg salad—served on a horizontal slice of lettuce—two years ago. “Ours is different. We use sunflower seeds, raisins, roasted broccoli and an orange dressing.”

But what of iceberg’s nutritional bankruptcy? “That myth is getting really old,” said Andrew Perlot, a Connecticut-based raw foodie and blogger. “When we look at the nutrients per calorie, not per gram, we see that iceberg, while lower than other lettuce by most measures, is still in the ballpark. It has lots of water, some vitamin A and C and calcium. It’s hardly the lost cause it’s been made out to be.” Food stylist Kendra McKnight says the problem is the superfood people—the kale people, in particular—“who treat iceberg like it’s the white trash of lettuce. No, it’s not a superfood, but what else delivers that gratifying crunch? You have to accept it for what it is, not what it isn’t.” Chef Nick Hodge and his team at Icehouse in Montreal have a special place in their hearts for iceberg. “We shred 60 heads of iceberg lettuce every week. A taco isn’t a taco without it,” proclaimed Hodge, adding, “Hey, if you want nutrition, eat spinach. Not every vegetable is intended for every situation.”

Frank Morton, an independent plant breeder, has noticed a spike of interest in iceberg the last couple of years. He sells seeds for more than 17 varieties of crisp-head lettuce, including iceberg, at his farm, Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Ore. “The iceberg sank in the 1980s and 1990s because it had become a symbol of our monoculture agriculture. The public wanted more,” said Morton. “But most people don’t realize that iceberg doesn’t have to be the classic light-green head you see wrapped in plastic in the supermarket. I have some crisp-head varieties with red and pink spots. The idea is to make better blends.” Morton bred two new varieties this year, Red Ball Jets and Minigreen Merlox Mix, which are doing well with local farmers.

“This resurgence of interest in iceberg is more than just the Mad Men factor, where people have nostalgia for retro foods,” Morton continued. “Once you get away from iceberg for a while and come back, you try it and say, ‘It’s pretty good. Why did I stop eating this?’ ”

Well, lookie here! Our assistant editor Jessica Allen predicted iceberg lettuce’s comeback on her Maclean’s blog almost a  year ago.