Mired in salad doldrums? Green Goddess Julia Sherman shares her secrets in Salad for President
Until recently, I’d always relegated the salad to the status of a sad, feminine, throwaway thing to make or order, lacking substance, heft. And yet, if done well, it can be a transformative experience to eat a salad. The skill to create a spectacular one requires the deftness of a ballerina in pointe shoes. Julia Sherman’s project-turned-book, Salad for President, sought to transform the salad from a side piece to a main chick, center plate.
My perception of salad has been a moldable, lifelong journey. My varying impressions, from childhood to present day: “Salad exists on the boring, diet-friendly, doldrum quadrant of the menu; it appeals to women-people who feign satiation from watery leaves, roughly hewn core chunks and a light spritzing of too-sweet balsamic,” to “salad is sad and challenging,” to—after reading Sherman’s Salad for President—“a grand and jubilant bowl of art, flavor and texture.”
When I discovered Salad for President, a cookbook inspired by artists, I thought: Finally, I will master the art of the salad! That damned, seemingly simple, but actually flummoxing nightmare-leafed and improvisational thing. And I did master it, to a degree. Sherman’s salad headnotes are stories—not too sentimental but smart and succinct, refined, like patent leather flats. And in between are interviews and dispatches from her travels around the world to meet with various artists, activists and guerilla gardeners like the esteemed Alice Waters, beloved Weimaraner photographer William Wegman and punk green thumb Ron Finley. It all gives the cookbook the feeling of actual book—perhaps more worthy of coffee table than kitchen shelf, though it would probably do best simply shuttled back and forth between rooms.
A Manhattanite and daughter of artists, Sherman experimented with mediums as varied as sculpture, silkworms (she raised them and spun their cocoons into thread), film and photography, and even embedded with a community of Benedictine nun-farmers before beginning her blog, Salad for President in 2012 (which eventually resulted in the eponymous book). She’d always enjoyed making salads and entertaining friends and loved ones; she even began growing her own vegetables during college in Los Angeles, after meeting her community gardener husband. But this was a new approach, salad as a medium—a way to combine cooking, writing and photography.
Though she herself is an artist, and the artists she creates salads with throughout the book have varying opinions on whether they see salad creation as art, Sherman sees herself as more of a dabbler here. At a book tour stop at Nolita’s Samuji, the Finnish fashion and housewares shop, over salad and cocktails she told an intimate audience, “If you the maker call it art, then it is art.” On why she doesn’t consider her own salads to be art, she added, “People want you to be an expert…. I’m not interested in being an expert in anything.” To her, salad simply felt like an honest, straightforward way to present vegetables, and not coming from a chef or food background, she didn’t feel confined by ego or expectations.
As I approached recipes like roasted beet and potato salad with dill yogurt sauce and half-sour pickles, and the reinvigorated (many thanks to the za’atar) simple green salad with za’atar and lemon vinaigrette in Salad for President, I thought of salads differently: Each one was a little masterpiece, a world of its own.
Sherman manages to make Salad for President a rollicking and informative read from end to end, a true work of art, from an artist’s strange and beautiful brain. Expanding the concept of what a salad can be, she sneaks in ceviche with herbs, Insalate di Mare (seafood salad), pickled things, meaty things, dainty piled flowers and herbs to eat, gazpachos and even a grilled Greek. With so much care given to color and plating, the way it will all look, the whole experience, the texture and sound, rather than just the taste, Salad for President has made a salad believer, voter and constituent out of me after all.
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Early in Julia Sherman’s Salad for President project she crafted a salad garden on the roof of MoMA PS1, which culminated in a grand rooftop salad party in collaboration with Gotham Greens (among others). It was her way of ending the museum experience with something tactile, something guests could actually eat.
Salad for President: A Cookbook Inspired by Artists. By Julia Sherman (Abrams, 2017)