If you asked the average Joe today what he thinks about salad, ten to one he says something about “healthy.” I’m a 1980s baby, a Millennial, a product of the decade marked by thick shoulder pads and Jell-O Pudding Pops commercials with smiling Bill Cosby on the screen, and what I remember most about the salads in my childhood is that there weren’t many. My school cafeteria had Pizza Day and Hot Dog Day, and, by the time I was a senior, when I was the one running to Aldi to grab the cheapest versions of buns and chips and candy bars for us to resell, I was never picking up greens or vegetables or even fruit. (Who would buy them, especially when they could get a giant Coke for less?) Besides that, salads were rabbit food—crunchy and raw, the sort of thing you needed to chomp at before you could swallow—and they couldn’t fill you up like the burgers we made on grill day or the bread-heavy pizzas each week, right? You’d eat salad if you were dieting. Or maybe if they went with your aerobics plan because, in the years of Richard Simmons’s dance moves and Suzanne Somers’s thighs, aerobics was a pretty big thing to do.
Of course, the ’80s were 30 years ago, I am still shocked to realize, and high school feels even farther gone than that. While Tim and I were in Chicago recently, we spent a day with my friend Jackie who used to have a locker under mine, sometime in 1997 or ’98, I think, when she was in eighth grade and I was a sophomore at our small private school. She’s getting married in November, to a sweet, soft-spoken guy who rides the Metra and works with numbers each day, and after the four of us toured the historic stone mansion where they’ll be having the wedding in Joliet, we headed to Chipotle for lunch. There, three out of four ate big bowls of greens as our choice, not our punishment, of entrée, salads the sort of thing we actually like to eat.
So sure, salad’s come a long way in my lifetime, especially in my particular lifetime, where the me of 1994 and the me of 2014 have precious little in common by way of typical diet each week. We all know that there are salad restaurants, salad buffets, entire sections of salads on most menus of most restaurants or, at least, at the ones where you sit down to eat. If you go to Google and type “salad,” there are over 21 million results brought up in less than a minute, as in more than 20 times the amount of people living in Nashville in 2012. 81% of Americans eat at least one salad a week, says an infographic made by Mint. Most fast-food restaurants offer salads on their menus, catering at least in theory if not in actuality, to people looking for a healthier way to eat. If there’s one thing people today seem to know about salad, it’s that it’s good for you, the thing you pick when you care about your body and your health and you want something fresh.
Here is my only problem with that: I know what it’s like to do things, like eat salad, because I think that I should, not because there’s anything particularly alluring about the idea to my heart. The former me, the one with big bangs and braces and an affinity for clothes sold at Abercrombie, ate salad when I was forced to, when my mom put it on the table or when my peers were saying salads were a virtuous choice. Some people are good at things like that; I’m not. So when I hear people talk about the health perks of salad, when I talk about the health benefits of salad, I wonder if there’s something of a disservice going on. Leafy greens, like all fresh produce, are more than nutritious. Salad is more than low in calories and high in vitamins and minerals that make your body well. Salad can also be delicious. When you find the right combination of textures and flavors, like a triple berry salad or a leafy sprouts salad with a sweet and spicy homemade vinaigrette, it doesn’t have to be a thing to get through; it can be a thing to savor. Salad can fill you up. And while the former me ate salad when I had to, the present me often debates between salad and something else on a menu because I find so much pleasure in a colorful, tall stack of vegetables on my plate. Case in point: this peach and corn salad. A seasonal celebration of the season that I also don’t have to fake affection for, every day marveling at the fierce sunlight and blistering heat and the way these things make the world around us grow.
Sometimes Tim will thank me for doing something for him: making him green beans or grabbing a glass of water or sitting for a long while to talk, and I’ll want to say, why are you thanking me? I love you! This makes me happy, too! And I think there’s something wonderful about that. Just as it is good to sacrificially love, so too it is good to get to love like this out of joy, out of delight, out of a natural pleasure that comes from seeking another’s good. It’s as true with us and food as it is with us and each other. It’s as true with us and each other as it is with us and God. And just like it is good to want to eat food that nourishes our bodies because it nourishes our bodies, so too it is good (better!) to want to eat it because we also want to eat it, because we like it, because it tastes good, because when we eat it we are delighted and that delight keeps us returning, over and over again, to another salad on our plates. I was past Y2K and halfway through college when I started to see the joy that is available in God, the pure soul-satisfying pleasure He provides and how all the other things—commands, principles, lessons—of the Bible flow out of that. I was out of grad school when I started to see the pure pleasure in the food He’s made. These days, salads are often the very things pointing me to Him, filling my heart with gratitude, for a world I have not made and food I have not grown, piled onto my plate to eat.
“Always you renounce a lesser good for a greater; the opposite is sin. Picture me with my ground teeth stalking joy – fully armed too, as it’s a highly dangerous quest.” Flannery O’Connor