Summertime Salad Sadness
It started with an unfamiliar, yet thrilling, crunch.
“What are the black bits?” I asked.
“Olives,” he said.
They never used to be in there before—those slimy, beady pits that stared at me with glistening contempt every time I opened the fridge door; those dark rings that formed a choir of tiny mouths who shrieked a unison “BOO!” as I lifted the lid of that untouched bottom box of pizza at a kid’s birthday party whose parents didn’t know any better. But I was seven now, which I guess meant no more special modifications. I knew this day would come.
“But they’re not round,” I insisted.
“I chopped them up,” he explained.
The tiny black flecks polluted an otherwise monochromatic sea of cream, staying afloat by clinging between the ridges of each noodle—they were impossible to pick out. I stared down, trying to estimate the number of bites I would need to empty my bowl. (I come from a family where we were expected to finish what was served; once, my parents fed me the same soft shell beef taco that I kept refusing to eat for three meals in a row, but that’s a story for another time.) My father looked at me expectantly.
“Cool,” I sighed, slightly defeated, stabbing at the tainted mixture with my fork. Bite after bite, I realized the olives weren’t that offensive—the tang took some getting used to, but they weren’t worth sacrificing my favorite pasta salad.
On paper, it made no sense: a list of one thing after the next that I didn’t think I liked. But for some reason, when combined, I couldn’t get enough. Coming from an extended family who has a lot of birthdays from May to July—and who hardly ever needed an excuse to find time to get together when we all lived in the same area—this dish made an appearance at every summer gathering. It wasn’t just any ordinary pasta salad, but the Bernstein pasta salad. (Later on, I actually found out it was Dunkley’s from The Food Network, but to childhood me, it was ours.)
Like any first true love, we grew together. I learned a lot: at six, after understanding that the glue that adhered the ingredients was mayonnaise, I became more willing to extend the use of the white goop into other meals (hello BLTS); at seven, pickles made more frequent solo appearances on my plate after I learned that they were capable of delivering that extra “zing”; at eight, my shameless enjoyment of eating onion raw came into fruition after I had a particularly transformative experience with the ones that supplied a bittersweet closing note from the pasta salad one summer afternoon.
Over the years, I’ve learned to seek solace in these kinds of sides that clutter the end of the buffet tables at every barbecue and potluck, their contents forming a terrain of uncertainty that only the seriously starved dare to fully explore. As someone who would more readily identify as a “carbivore” over a carnivore, I have fearlessly learned how to navigate this expedition into the unknown, but still only manage to leave the tiniest of indentations amongst their hills of abundance.
I can understand people’s weariness when it comes to these sorts of salads today, which engulf utensils into the depths of their seemingly endless high-fat mystery mush. I also recognize that, beyond the pasta and potato varieties, fruit and vegetable salads fall victim to this mindset as well, with peak produce contaminated by overly-acidic waves of juices and vinegars.
As we enter the height of sad-salad season, I think it’s time to reconsider the plunging reputation of these sides before they are completely disinvited from attending cookouts nationwide. To me, they are the cherry atop the sundae of a fully satiated summer, the final touch to complete a perfect balance that people don’t realize is attainable until it is missing.
Instead of recognizing these sides for only their flaws, why not celebrate them for it? Sometimes, they can prove to be perfectly bad in all the right ways—who needs to be impressed by a single dish alone when you can save the remains of an overly watery store-bought container of coleslaw by soaking up its remnants with the last bites of a potato bun still warmed from the residual heat of a freshly grilled hot dog? At the same time, I would be remiss if I didn’t challenge you to find your own perfect symmetry between sweet and salty and sour all within one bowl.
I first took on this equation last summer, my burgeoning desire to become a better cook developing in tandem with a steady stream of invitations to outdoor picnics and potlucks around the city. After mustering up the courage to shop the Union Square Farmers Market (fake it ‘til you make it), I sought to flaunt the fresh flavors of my haul in the form of a side salad for the first gathering. The possibilities seemed endless: the number of solutions to solve the formula that laid before me seemed just as bountiful as my bag that overflowed with tomatoes and fresh herbs. And yet, in an incredibly decisive and overwhelmed state, a “quick trip” to the grocery store for “just a few things” turned into a never-ending addition of one ingredient after the next: the tomatoes led to basil, which led to watermelon, which led to feta, which led to cucumber, which led to balsamic, which led to red onion, which led to avocado, which led to cilantro… Why choose, when you can have it all?
I held my breath as I pulled the lid off from the container, revealing the loud, gaudy colors that forced themselves center stage amongst the ensemble of Tupperware in our corner of Prospect Park. I can’t figure out if my friends are super polite or just super apathetic towards food, but the salad was eaten without hesitation or much comment, down to its last pulpy bit.
I decided it would be a good idea to recreate the dish at my parents’ house in a few weeks’ time to show off my new “skills.” Albeit slightly refined, the salad was met with the same sympathetic smiles my parents would offer up when I would suggest a fleeting interest in sports as a kid. It was a harsh but inconsequential lesson that less is more, and in food, there was no exception.
August is just about here, bringing a myriad of tomatoes alongside with it. I’m ready to redeem myself, in an effort to save these sad salads from slipping into forced retirement, only to be remembered as twentieth-century regret. Finding the perfect side might be hard to come by, but believe me that I’ve sampled enough to know they’re out there. I swear that when you stumble upon its sublime combination of thrilling, unexpected flavor, the sun will shine a little brighter, the air will feel a little warmer, and summer will linger for just a few moments more.