Basic training in 1973 at Fort Jackson, S.C., was not a culture shock to me. Daddy was a Marine, so I grew up under strict supervision and was used to being dropped for pushups or called a maggot.
But it was during basic training when I was 18 years old that I ate my first salad.
Mama always fixed a starch (usually rice) and two veggies with every meal, but they were cooked veggies. The only raw veggies I was exposed to were the cabbage and carrots in her cole slaw. The very idea of eating a mixture of iceberg and Romaine lettuce with spinach leaves, bell pepper and other green stuff — all topped with something called dressing — was foreign to me. But I ate it.
I quickly found my way around the salad bar in the Army’s mess halls (now called dining facilities). I tried everything, including the array of dressings. In fact, a salad without salad dressing is just rabbit food. I’ll eat the rabbit before I’ll eat his food without dressing.
French and Thousand Island became my favorites. Mixing the two gave me a dressing that tasted a lot like the special sauce on Hardee’s Huskee Junior.
It was the dog days of August when basic training began, so a cool, crisp salad made more sense than mystery meat and potatoes, which my drill instructor also made me eat. He was like an over-protective, really mean mom. He said I needed to put some meat on my bones, or I wouldn’t weigh enough to get through airborne school.
I ate whatever they put before me at Fort Jackson and later during infantry training at Fort Polk, La. By January, when I reported to Fort Benning, I had gained 12 pounds. It must have been the salad; I’m sure potatoes three times a day had nothing to do it.
The mess halls at jump school were much nicer than those in basic and advanced individual training. They served real food that had flavor. But I continued eating my salads.
I sampled other dressings, too. Italian dressing was different, and I liked it. Sometimes, the mess sergeant would get fancy on us and swap out the Italian with a vinaigrette. It was good, too.
Bleu cheese dressing smelled too much like my socks after a road march. As years passed, though, I learned to eat bleu cheese dressing with hot wings, but only after mixing it with a little ranch dressing, which by the 1980s had won my favor for life.
If I order a salad with chunks of roasted or grilled chicken, I’ll use a honey-mustard dressing, which is made of mayo, honey and Dijon mustard. Ranch, by the way, is a combination of buttermilk, mayo, vinegar, salt, pepper, garlic and onion powder and a bunch of herbs like chives, parsley and dill.
As I suggested earlier, Italian and vinaigrette dressing are similar in that both are made up of vinegar and oil, with only the amount and type of spices making them different. Thousand Island is made of mayo, olive oil, lemon juice, orange juice, paprika, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and vinegar. Just read the label.
French dressing is somewhat similar except that it leaves out the Worcestershire and mayo but includes dry mustard, garlic, sugar and cayenne pepper.
Most of us rely on store-bought bottle dressings because it makes sense to buy vinegar-based dressing, which is going to last a lot longer when left unopened in your pantry. Dressings that include mayo or buttermilk probably will start to lose flavor long before their expiration dates, even if they’re refrigerated.
Nutritionists say salads are healthy — if you eat the veggies without any dressing. However, I’m willing to risk the added cholesterol, salt and MSG. I’ll leave no-dressing salads to those cute, long-eared mammals — which, by the way, are delicious, with or without dressing.
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