Head of Iceberg lettuce growing in the field
A few months after immigrating to the U.S. with my mother and younger sister, I had my first job — and it included cutting into plenty of iceberg lettuce heads.
I was 16 years old and my job was a waitress at a chain of family style restaurants in Portland, Maine. Part of my work was to do simple food preparation, and to restock the salad bar.
The kitchen manager showed me how she wanted the Iceberg prepared… “Cut it this way, and include the core — people like to eat that” she said.
The iceberg lettuce was what you started with, the base of what you piled everything else on to, at the restaurant’s salad bar.
Because it was 1979, the salad bar consisted of potato “salad”, macaroni “salad”, 3-bean “salad” and other items like sliced beets (from the can), tomatoes, croutons, crackers, eggs and a variety of dressing. It is nothing like what you would see today at buffet restaurant salad bars, where there are always more than one lettuce option — and at least some spinach leaves!
At 16, I didn’t give much thought to where the Icebergs (or really any vegetables) were grown. But I’m pretty sure the Iceberg lettuce I was cutting into — especially since it was the start of winter in Maine — likely came from the Salinas Valley in Monterey County, California.
I’ve lived in a few places in the U.S. (and Germany) since we left Maine many years ago, and now live in Monterey County.
Besides the beautiful coast of central California, a prominent feature of the landscape here are the farm fields.
Monterey County is an agricultural powerhouse and the only county in the United States with more than $1 Billion in annual vegetable sales.
As you can imagine, growing this much of anything means this place is enveloped in farm fields.
There are farm fields next to schools, near shopping centers, neighborhoods, and on both sides of Highway 101 heading south of the county, if you are driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
There are also farm fields surprisingly close to the ocean, where expanses of sandy soil — some of which were once wetland areas — were turned into farm fields.
The most valuable crops grown here are lettuce leaves (for bag salads or packages of mix greens) and lettuce heads.
Lettuce grows well in sandy soil, and cool, mild weather…and yes, indeed, we have lots of sandy soil, and very mild weather here, perfect conditions to grow lettuce.
Although the potential of the land in this area as fertile farmland was discovered in the 1860’s, commercial farming did not take off until the expansion of the Southern Pacific railroad lines.
Starting in 1875, Chinese laborers who came with the railroad expansion worked to drain lakes and swamps in the valley, creating 500 acres of arable farmland in and around Salinas.
A few weeks ago, I went to the Salinas River National Wildlife Refuge (under management of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). To get to the refuge, you have to drive on a dirt road that ends at the refuge parking lot, facing the Pacific Ocean.
Both sides of the dirt road have farm fields. Since I’m always curious about what grows in farm fields, I pulled over to take a look…
The fields were filled with rows upon rows of Iceberg lettuce. I didn’t think people still ate Icebergs, especially now that there are so many more salad greens available in the market.
When my daughter was young, I opted to buy romaine or other types of lettuce after I learned that icebergs were composed mostly of water, and had the least amount of vitamins compared to other lettuce varieties.
Truck loaded with boxes of lettuce
But it turns out that Americans still love their Icebergs!
Through writing this post, I learned that of the 35 pounds of lettuce that a typical American eats per year, most of it (about 22 pounds) is the Iceberg variety.
A press release from Salinas based produce company Tanimura and Antle had these interesting Iceberg lettuce facts:
- The Iceberg was also called “crisphead lettuce” because of its ability to stay fresher longer than leaf lettuces
- The name “Iceberg” comes from the way the lettuce was packed and transported on ice, making the heads look like icebergs.
- Records indicate that the first carlot shipment of Iceberg was made in 1919 and took 21 days to reach New York from California.
- By 1931, 20,000 railcars were shipped annually. In 1950, over 11.5 million crates of Iceberg was grown, packed and shipped in Monterey County, California
- California produces approximately 72% of the Iceberg lettuce grown in the U.S, and the Iceberg variety accounts for 70% of the lettuce raised in California
- Depending on the time of year Iceberg is planted, it takes anywhere from 70 to 130 days from planting to harvest.
So…although the Iceberg’s popularity is dropping, it is still more popular than the Romaine type lettuce (a favorite for those who like “Caesar” salads — like my daughter) and other salad greens.
I suppose because it is a mild tasting lettuce (not bitter), and stays fresh longer than other varieties, it is understandable why it is still a favorite for many salad eaters.
You never have to tell my grandson Gabriel to eat his salad — he is known in the family as the salad lover. He is only 8, but as long as I can remember, he will usually ask for a second serving of salad, which made me think that my grandsons’ had palates from another planet.
Do you still eat Iceberg lettuce? If not, what type of lettuce typically makes it to your lunch plate or dinner table?
NOTE: This post is part of learning about, and understanding the soil where I live (2015 is the International Year of Soils — designated by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations) See this post from http://justanothernatureenthusiast.org/2015/04/19/unless-earth-friendly-friday-soil/ for more information. I’m also learning more about what remains of the wetlands in the area, as I read that 90% of the area’s wetlands were drained for commercial farming purposes.
Related: If you would rather grow than buy your lettuce, visit the University of Illinois “Watch your Garden Grow” website for tips about growing lettuce, best varieties for your region, and recipes.
Radio eport at NPR on food waste and “Landfill of Lettuce” (What happens to salad past its prime)