The Iceberg in Monterey County’s field of greens

Iceberg Lettuce

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.

Field of Greens

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.

Salinas Valley Fields web

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.

Field of Greens 2

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.

Sand Dunes across field of iceberg Lettuce

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…

Field of iceberg Lettuce 2

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 with boxes of produce

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.

Field of Greens 1

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?

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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 report at NPR on food waste and “Landfill of Lettuce” (What happens to salad past its prime)

19 thoughts on “The Iceberg in Monterey County’s field of greens

  1. Pingback: Display of Genius at Bodleian Library | litadoolan

  2. Hi Lola. Nice to meet you here! I’ve “graduated” from Iceburg to Boston, romaine, frisee, red leaf, arugula….From time to time, I “return” to Iceburg, but it is a bit bland. I do like the crunch, though! –Patti

  3. Your comment is exactly why I thought most people have, as you put it, “graduated” to other types of lettuce and what surprised me about the amount of Icebergs we still grow here. I agree, Iceberg is on the bland side, but oh yes, it is crunchy (you get this same crunch in the Romaine’s rib parts too, right?)

    Nice to meet you too, Patti. 🙂

  4. Great post, Lola Jane. I grew up on Iceberg salads as a kid. Haven’t had it in years! I love photographing the fields in CA and the rows of produce. I really like your composition of the Iceberg lettuce.

    • Thank you, Jane. I love seeing (and now photographing) the fields too! So interesting and constantly changing. Maybe those lines remind me of Philippine rice fields, which I always love
      to look at 🙂 . Learning more about photography makes me look forward to my next attempt at rice field photos.

      Here is one that is a bit different, of lines of onion sacks, which I don’t see as much in the Monterey area http://lolako.com/sack-scene/

  5. Hi Lola Jane! They do look succulent! Thanks for popping in on my photoblog 🙂 I am a Franco-German based in London, who loves the Southwest too! 🙂

  6. That is a lot of iceberg lettuce in your photos. Wonderful shots. I’m sure if you were a big naughty and helped yourself to one, no one would really notice… 😉

    Iceberg lettuce is all the rage here in Australia. It is hands down the most popular salad leaf and my favourite kind of lettuce too. Growing up in Malaysia and Singapore, my mum always bought iceberg lettuce home – it had to be it, and she would not even consider other lettuce options. Love the crispiness and freshness. My mum would cook iceberg lettuce by itself with Chinese soy sauce, with slices of chicken breast and even throw it in boiling chicken soup 🙂

    • Oh my goodness, Mabel, now that you have mentioned the food your mum makes, I am thinking about the “lettuce wrapped” Chinese dishes I have had in the past. I think I have had Iceberg lettuce in soups too — something most Americans would not think about doing with Icebergs!

      I also love the Vietnamese style crepes, which you are supposed to wrap in lettuce. The ones I’ve had here and in San Jose are served with the Romaine style lettuce and greens (like mint and cilantro).

      Thanks for the great addition to the comments, Mabel 🙂

      • Oh yes. Now that you mention it, my parents called those lettuce wrapped Chinese meats as “san choi bao” in Cantonese. I’ll admit it. I’m not a fan of pork and that was the meat my mum used to wrap in the lettuce 🙁

        Never heard of those Vietnamese style crepes. It’s interesting to hear how different cultures eat lettuce in different ways. In Malaysia, I’ve eaten fried yams served with lettuce leaves – the lettuce leaves came in huge pieces and were used as the base of the dish. It’s alright if they are not eaten, though usually someone at the table finished it off by themselves.

        What an enlightening response.

  7. What a fun post Lola! Yes, every night growing up we had salad made with iceberg lettuce – totally non nutritious !!! Now we do mixed greens and kale as well as romaine. Poor lowly iceberg – slipping ever farther in the food chain! Loved your farm shots.

  8. Nice to know you have graduated to other greens too, Tina. Kale, even! My grandson Gabriel loves Kale “chips”. We put a bit of olive oil and spices he likes, and on low temperature, cook it in the oven. He will eat an entire bunch all by himself.

    Thank you for the photos comment — it was a foggy day for the Iceberg shots, but that is a reality here in this area…fog. The fog does not bother the lettuce plants at all 🙂

    I ALWAYS appreciate comments about my photography efforts, especially from you with the amazing images you have captured ( http://www.blurb.com/user/store/Tinaschell )

  9. Hi Lola Jane,
    I, too, am in the ranks of folks who grew up with iceberg lettuce as the staple ingredient in salad. My mom even turned it into a “dessert” of sorts. Every once and a while she would let my sister and me sprinkle sugar on it, roll it, and eat! A cool treat for hot, humid nights growing up in a Philadelphia suburb 🙂 Makes me smile- I have to admit, my children weren’t very interested in sugared iceberg.

    The photos you took of the farms are spectacular. The history of lettuce production- past and present- is fascinating.

    Love learning from you <3

    Jane

    • Thank you for the kind words too, Jane! Now that I think about it, it is actually not that easy to take farm field photos, as the lines can get very boring. But if you get a few shots to help tell a story, it is satisfying.

      I love learning, and I can’t say enough positive things in support of your Earth-Friendly challenges. I hope you are having fun hosting 🙂 .

  10. Very nice photos!

    I also remember when Iceberg lettuce was the only lettuce we ate. I didn’t know that other types of lettuce existed! I don’t eat it anymore – I’m more of a mixed greens gal now. I think it’s very cool that your grandson likes salad!

    I’m curious – how long did you live in Maine? I went there on a vacation in 1993 or 1994. I really liked Portland. I also went to Ogunquit.

    • Yes, my grandsons strangely love veggies — especially little Gabriel. I wrote about it and called the post “Palates from Another Planet” haha… http://lolako.com/palates-from-another-planet/ It was a few months after I started my blog (which means, 1 person read it, and maybe it was one of my sisters posing as another person so I did not feel too bad!

      We only lived In Maine for 7 or 8 months I think…everyone we met was so nice, but we must have stuck out. I have good memories, and one I’ll never forget is going swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. I thought all oceans felt like it did in the Philippines…warm and nice — it was summertime afterall. I lost my breath when I ran in the water, and thought everyone was CRAZY for being in there Jane! 93/94 we were back in the SF Bay area.

      Did you like Maine?

      • Love that they love your cooking and their veg!

        I liked Maine. I was there during the changing of the leaves, so it was extra beautiful. I don’t think I could handle the winters, though…

  11. Pingback: NPR Report on Salinas Valley “Bag Salad” Waste | Lola Jane's World

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