Let me begin by saying this: You cannot overestimate how important Jasper Wang, our vice president of revenue and operations, is to Defector Media. Sure, the rest of us “write blogs,” whatever that means. But the whole endeavor hinges, not only on us writing blogs, but on us then getting paid for writing blogs. Jasper’s job means turning our words into actual paychecks, off of which we live our lives, support our families, and sometimes even take vacations. But possibly more important than any of that, he also ordered us a giant spread of smoked fishes, bagels, schmears, and other Jewish deli specialties for lunch yesterday. He even allowed me to weigh in on the order before he placed it! I told him that he had to order the health salad.
What is health salad? It is the MVP of Jewish deli sides. Yes, that is quite a strong take. But hear me out.
Health salad is one of those dishes where every bubbe is going to make it a little differently. Like chicken soup, there’s an element of “throwing whatever you’ve got lying around” in this dish. The only elements that are absolutely essential are cabbage—and I mean a lot of cabbage—and some type of vinegar. From there, the dish reflects its roots with the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe: You’ll find probably find some cucumbers, onions, carrots, and radishes thrown in there. But maybe you’ll also see tomatoes and bell peppers and whatever other vegetable might be in season or lying around the pantry. Yes, this sounds a lot like coleslaw, and you can skip many steps by just buying generic coleslaw mix. But, unlike that dish, you don’t mix it with mayonnaise. This is what makes it health salad. Instead, your liquid is some mix of a vinegars (probably apple cider vinegar and white vinegar) plus some oil (eh, whatever you prefer) plus salt and sugar to taste. Do you want a recipe? This one from The Nosher looks good to me.
It’s a giant pile of vegetables without mayonnaise! It’s clearly healthy! As The Nosher points out, health salads are pretty closely related to the vitamin salads of Eastern Europe, and “this style of salad gets its healthy-sounding name because of its contrast to the many richer salads that make up Soviet cuisine, which tend to be made with lots of mayonnaise or sour cream.” Which is to say, look, this was before blender technology and nobody had access to endive, let alone a $20 green juice, so we were making do with what we had. I don’t know the exact nutritional breakdown of health salad, but it’s kept my family alive for thousands of years. Sure, it’ s not the sexiest salad, but nobody calls it sexy salad.
This is why my advice to you is, whenever you are partaking of your favorite smoked fishes and cured meats, to throw some health salad on your plate. You don’t need to go crazy, just a solid scoop or two. My personal recommendation is it should take up approximately one quarter of your plate, which still leaves plenty of room for your sandwich and pickle.
Yes, there is a counter-argument: You did not just go all the way to your favorite New York Jewish deli to get the health salad. You really flew 3,000 miles to eat vegetables (strike one)? You’re really giving up valuable plate real estate that could be used for more chopped, scooped organ meat (strike two)? You had to leave Los damn Angeles to get something with health in the name (strike three)???
I cannot go back in time and tell my forerunners that “health salad” is bad marketing. Please forgive me. But to all the other points, let me say this. I suspect that, somehow, my ancestors knew that the surviving on giant piles of meats that had been smoked or brined or pickled or in some other way preserved was to somehow, some way, sneak in a damn vegetable (that wasn’t a pickle). Eons before phrases like “balanced meal” and “eat your colors” entered our lexicon, they understood that getting these vegetable things on our plate were key. Don’t ask me how these vegetables neutralize the effects of eating pounds and pounds of salted everything, but they do, at least somewhat. Like with chicken soup, I have zero scientific evidence for stating this, but I will swear on this fact to my grave.
Like yesterday. I ate an everything bagel piled high with two types of cream cheese (one half plain, the other half scallion), two types of smoked lox (one half traditional, the other half pastrami-style), plus two servings of pickled herring, and some smoked whitefish that I just ate straight. I also had two giant servings of health salad and today I feel fine. Dare I say, I even feel great. I don’t want to sell out anyone at Defector Media, but not everyone feels great today. And you know why some folks don’t feel great? They didn’t eat the health salad.