A few years ago I went to Mexico, ate some wonky ceviche, and nearly died of food poisoning. I spent about ten hours one night alternately sweating and shivering, and--most bafflingly--nursing an intense craving for chicken Caesar salad. To this day, I still have no idea why it was chicken Caesar that ended up as the object of my most psychedelic hallucinations, but I think food writer Michael Ruhlman’s eloquent jeremiad on America’s most iconic family-restaurant dish might start to hint at an answer. 

“I cringe when I see the Chicken Caesar because it represents an embrace of the misinformed and unimaginative American diner, who for better or worse continues to shape our menus,” writes Ruhlman.  “I’ll have a salad, the reasoning goes, because it’s healthy (let’s disregard what it’s slathered with), and I’m hungry so let’s pile on some chicken breast, the skim milk of the protein world.” 

The Caesar salad probably colonized my sickly brain precisely because it signified safety, tameness, familiarity and everything else that’s the opposite of puking to death in a $4-a-night Mexican tent in the blazing night heat of July. And a well-made chicken Caesar is a beautiful thing. But what Ruhlman rails against is not a meat-topped salad, it’s that if we are, collectively, what we eat, then “the content of that culture, judging from the sheer volume of portions served, is surely the Chicken Caesar, bottled dressing, thickened with Xantham gum.” 

One school of thought in the cyberscopic outpouring following Ruhlman’s post dubs his anger about the Chicken Caesar  “foodie” and “elitist.” “If people like it it must be terrible, seems to be your motto,” writes one, adding a few expletives for emphasis. Another writer wonders why people like Ruhlman’s pal Anthony Bourdain “love to praise common food of other nations, but when it comes to the common food of their own nation, they turn their nose up at it.” And yet another sniffs, “Ranch dressing is the opiate of the palates of the masses.” 

Just as many commenters defended Ruhlman as criticized him. The one with the most sensible, succinct response: “Why is it elitist to object to mediocrity? You don’t have to be rich or even a foodie to recognize poorly-created food.”

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007