by Ian Froeb
Is there any specimen of contemporary consumer convenience more beautiful than the bagged salad? The shiny plastic clamors for our attention from the supermarket shelves. You want a specific leaf? Bags trumpet the virtues of arugula or iceberg, baby spinach or hearts of romaine. Can't decide? Grab a spring mix or a European mix or a Mediterranean mix. Can't remember whether you have a bottle of dressing at home? The Caesar mix has your back with packets of dressing, cheese and croutons to pair with the greens.
This one has been triple-washed. This one has been quadruple-washed. This one has been washed in the tears of twenty comely virgins.
All beauty is fleeting, however, and in the case of bagged salads you needn't wait decades for its shine to fade. You don't even have to open the bag -- though that will surely do the trick. Simply take the bag from the shelf and examine its contents. Press the greens against the plastic until the bag seems ready to pop.
Does that leaf have a touch of brown around the edges? Do the greens leave a slick of slime on the inside of the plastic?
Are you really that desperate for a dump-and-dress salad?
See Also: - "Excuse Me, Waiter, There's a Mouse in My Salad"
Last week, Clayton-Richmond Heights Patch scooped a disturbing incident from earlier this year: A diner at Katie's Pizzeria Café (6611 Clayton Road, Clayton; 314-727-8585) found a dead mouse in her salad. According to the report from the St. Louis County Department of Health and Human Services, the salad with the mouse came from a bag.
The manager on duty at Katie's said they took the bag of lettuce back to Restaurant Depot; the Restaurant Depot owner took fault.
Yes, well, while it was thoughtful of the Restaurant Depot owner to take the fall for the mouse, that certainly doesn't excuse the restaurant staff for not noticing that they were about to serve a customer a salad with a dead mouse in it.
(How does one not notice a dead mouse in a bag of greens? Besides carelessness? A colleague who knows far more about most matters than I do observes that mere hours after a mouse dies, its corpse has shriveled to a point that you could mistake it for a dried fig. I have no empirical evidence that this is true, but I certainly won't be eating dried figs any time soon.)
Really, though, the dead mouse is, if not irrelevant, nothing more than a spectacular (and rare) symptom of a much larger problem at many -- maybe most -- restaurants.
Bagged greens save time. That's why restaurants buy them. That's why you buy them. That's why I buy them. Dump 'em in a bowl, add a few other ingredients if you like, dress and serve.
Except that when I buy them -- I know I shouldn't; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak -- I know to not simply dump them in the bowl. Even if they passed a visual inspection in the store, I look for the browned bits hiding behind the larger leaves. I pick up a leaf or two to check the texture. I smell it.
If you are going to serve bagged greens at your restaurant, you should do at least this much with each and every bag. You will certainly notice any foreign objects among the greens. ("Hey! I didn't know this spring mix had dried figs in it...") You will likely notice any leaves or other bits that would look or taste unappetizing. At the very least, you can say, "I, in good conscience, know what I'm serving my diners."
Even if what you're serving is subpar product. Because that's what bagged greens are, by and large. Like the endless row of shrink-wrapped boneless, skinless chicken breasts, they are a commodity filler, inoffensive at best, made palatable by the addition of a dressing or bacon or whatever, not because they themselves have any intrinsic deliciousness.
Will you spend more money to buy better greens? Will it take you more time to separate the leaves and sort out the bad ones and wash and dry the rest? Yes.
Would it distinguish you as the sort of restaurant that truly cares about every product on its menu -- even the humble house salad -- rather than only the one or two dishes on which your reputation rests? Yes.
And note that I said "better" greens, not "great" greens. You don't have to jump right from the bagged stuff to some kind of heirloom, organic, locally grown variety that will send your food costs into the stratosphere. (Though I applaud you if you do.) You do have to think about what you're serving your diners.
And if you still decide to open the bag, you have to look inside.