Caesar salad origins: Iconic dish, invented in Mexico, turns 100

Pizaros Pizza Napoletanas Cesar salad, photographed, Tuesday, July 22, 2014, in Houston. (Photo by Nick de la Torre/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images)

The Caesar salad is celebrating a major milestone this week. 

The garlicky Romaine dish turns 100 on Thursday. 

In honor of its 100th birthday, here’s how the Caesar salad became a star. Its origins, which date back to Mexico in 1924, may surprise you. 

Caesar salad origins 

Italian immigrant Caesar Cardini reportedly invented the salad on July 4, 1924, at his restaurant, Caesar's Place, in Tijuana, Mexico. 

It was a steamy night, according to The Associated Press, and the Italian restaurateur was flooded with customers from California who had crossed into Tijuana to escape Prohibition. 

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Cardini, in the middle of the dining room, used ingredients he had in his kitchen – Romaine lettuce, garlic-flavored oil, Worcestershire sauce, lemons, eggs and Parmesan cheese – and the rest is history. 

But not everyone is in agreement about the origins of the salad. 

Some say the recipe was invented by the mother of Livio Santini, one of Cardini’s chefs and a fellow Italian immigrant. Others say Cardini’s brother Alex created the dish, which he made with limes and anchovy paste. 

Alex’s version was dubbed "Aviator’s Salad" because he supposedly served it to airmen from a San Diego base.

Caesar’s in Tijuana, a restaurant Cardini opened a few years after the salad was born, didn’t respond when asked about the salad’s history by The Associated Press, but the restaurant does mention Santini’s name on its website. The restaurant still sells about 300 Caesar salads a day. 

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The city of Tijuana plans to commemorate the anniversary this month with a three-day food and wine festival and the unveiling of a Cardini statue. 

How the Caesar salad became so popular

Beth Forrest, a professor of liberal arts and applied food studies at the Culinary Institute of America, said it took a few years for Caesar salad to hit the mainstream. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Caesar salad was often prepared tableside, giving it an air of spectacle and sophistication, she said.

Forrest said Caesar salad is ideal for the Western palate because it contains our two preferred textures: crispy and creamy. The egg yolks and Parmesan cheese are also high in glutamate acids, which give the salad the rich, salty taste known as " umami. "

"It satisfies us in many hedonistic ways, while we can still feel virtuous. It is, after all, a salad," Forrest said.

Forrest said the recipe also echoes old Italian specialties. It resembles a pinzimonio, a dressing of olive oil and lemon juice used as a vegetable dip, or a bagna cauda, a hot dip of anchovy and garlic from the Piedmont region where Cardini was born.

According to the AP, about 35% of U.S. restaurants serve Caesar salads. The U.S. reportedly sells 43 million bottles – $150 million worth – of Caesar dressing each year. 

Experts say the many variations of Caesar salad have also helped maintain its popularity – adding bacon, chicken, kate or Brussels sprouts, for example – but Cardini was a purist when it came to his recipe.

In a 1987 interview with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, his daughter Rosa Cardini he used only the tender, inner leaves of Romaine lettuce and left them whole, intending diners to pick them up with their fingers. He boiled the eggs for one minute before adding them, and he didn’t use anchovies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.