The Working Waterfront

Let us be thankful for lettuce


Posted 2020-08-05
Last Modified 2020-10-04

‘Tis lettuce season for certain on-island. We are devouring the first planting of lettuce, which has turned into heads of glorious size, while the second planting is sizing up nicely, and the third has just been planted out to the garden from their nursery flats in the hoop house. The fourth planting is just barely emerging from potting soil. We are good for three or four more plantings.

One great joy of island living is cool enough weather that lettuce thrives all summer long—usually. If we are lucky enough to have ripe tomatoes in August, and this year we might even manage ripe ones in July, we can anticipate lettuce to go with them, as in B.L.T.s or lettuce salad with tomato chunks in it. Inland, the lettuce resists germinating or bolts in sufficient heat to ripen tomatoes.

Because it is so easy for me to grow lettuce, I routinely overdo it. An enormous salad every night for supper, plus leftover salad for lunch or sandwiches so stuffed with lettuce that we have to unhinge our jaws to get around it, doesn’t quite work through enough lettuce to outrun the supply.

Of course, there is always our little farmer’s market right around the corner from my place where I can unload nearly a dozen heads in a couple hours. But then, what to do with the heads that don’t sell?

For starters, thank goodness for grilled lettuce. It is meant for Romaine style heads which are tall and cylindrical and can be laid on the grill and turned like a giant green sausage. One paints the long leaves with olive oil and cooks the head over a medium flame until it is nicely wilted, a little bit charred, and can be served in chunks on each plate. I have grilled or broiled, depending on my mood and the weather, fluffier heads of lettuce until they are tender and then I shred it on a platter and dribble salad dressing all over it.

That, of course, is a variation on the very old recipe of wilted lettuce made by heating bacon fat or vinegar and dribbling it over lettuce with a sprinkle of sugar on top. Imagine how yummy that would taste with crumbled bacon sprinkled over the lettuce as well.

Cooked lettuce historically found its way into soups, too, especially ones for fast days like this one from Hannah Glasse, 1747, entitled “soop meager,” but hardly meager with butter, onions, celery, spinach, parsley, and “a good Lettice clean washed,” and water for broth, thickened with a little flour, dry bread crumbs, and seasoned with pepper and mace, then finished with beaten egg yolks and a dash of vinegar. If you have green peas, you can add them. If you aren’t fasting, use chicken broth.

Mrs. Glasse also suggested serving simmered lettuce with a nicely fried egg served on top. That reminds me of Egg Florentine which is cooked spinach with an egg nestled in it. When I have too much spinach, I make a salad of spinach chiffonade—ribbons of spinach tossed with fine couscous and dressed with lemon cream with dill and chives. That’s worth trying on lettuce, too, practically a main dish by itself, or a nice accompaniment to a piece of chicken or fish.

Once I got past the raw imperative with lettuce, all the cooked lettuce dishes helped me cut a super-abundance of lettuce down to size. I suppose I could reduce the amount of lettuce I grow, but those little seeds are so tiny that it is hard not to end up with a couple dozen seedlings in a very short row. It seems murderous to discard the extras. And besides, it is so much fun to have three or four different kinds of lettuce at one time: butterheads, big leafy red and greens, all red, or speckled in different loose head or compact forms.

Then there are the volunteers which spring up where I let a lettuce or two go to seed, and which produce the very earliest because the seed in its own wisdom chooses the best moment to germinate, not relying on a faulty opinion of mine about when the right time has arrived to sprout.

According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center (found online), lettuce is produced in many states but California and Arizona dominate U.S. production. You know what is going on in those places right now. I bet Maine islands with any decent soil could grow enough lettuce for themselves and summer residents, too, all summer long. So what are we doing with all that California and Arizona in our fridges?

Sandy Oliver is a food historian who gardens, cooks, and writes on Islesboro.