Fruit, tuna, jell-o: the definition of ‘salad’ is not an easy one to throw away.

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The most successful plant in my garden is Aegopodium podagraria, also known as goutweed. It just popped up and I can’t get rid of it so I make up my mind to eat it every spring. There is a definite shortage of goutweed recipes online, but gardening blogs often identify it as Potherb. This year I made up my mind to find out what a pot herb is, and the answer highlights a question that has puzzled cooks and philosophers alike: what exactly is one? salad?

A Potherb is a leafy green vegetable that you cook before you eat. Although today we think of herbs as plants whose leaves are used sparingly to flavor food, here herb is used in the botanical sense: “a seed-producing … [plant] which does not develop a stubborn wood tissue, but dies at the end of a growing season ”, as defined by Merriam-Webster.

For the gourmets of the Renaissance, salad was the classic herb. It wasn’t a Potherb, but a Lettuce. salad is derived from the Latin word for “salt”. sal. The ancient Romans ate a lot of vegetables than salata (“Salted Things”) – raw and seasoned with oil, vinegar and salt. Salad herbs are the opposite of herbs, not cooked but eaten raw, and this is (mostly) still a defining characteristic of the dishes that we call salad today.

The first English recipe for a salad (1425) instructs the chef to prepare 14 kinds of raw vegetables and herbs, including parsley, sage, leek, purslane and fennel; tear the leaves into small pieces; and “mix well” with oil, vinegar and salt. It seems like we have a definition – a salad is made of raw leaves torn into small pieces, thrown together and covered with dressing.

But what about fruit salad? Tuna salad? My favorite salad as a child, made from marshmallows, canned pineapple and jello? Salad seems to be what philosophers call a Cluster concept: one that is defined by a “list of criteria such that none of these criteria is necessary or sufficient for membership”. We can make a list of things that usually characterize salads – they contain leafy greens or other raw vegetables or fruits, their contents are cut into roughly bite-sized pieces, and they are arranged, mixed, and eaten cold or at room temperature. However, none of these are necessary to make a salad, and none of them always make a salad. Tuna salad can consist of fish, mayonnaise and mustard and can satisfy the components “small pieces”, “dressing” and “eaten cold”, but contain no vegetables at all. Jello Salad has “fruit”, “small pieces” and “eaten cold”, but it has no dressing or vegetables and is only questionably raw.

As I rediscover every year, goutweed is not very good – as an herb or in a salad!



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