The Salad Days

When I was a child, my mother would talk about things she thought would be different in the future. She would say things like, “One day you will tell your grandkids about how you used to be able to swim in the ocean.” It seemed ominous, especially when said as I was splashing around in the Gulf of Mexico. She also once predicted that in the future we will get all of our nutrients from a single tablet instead of having to bother with eating meals. This was probably said as I was finishing off the last of everyone’s French fries.

She never predicted any of the things that I have actually had to tell my kids, like that when I was a kid everyone in my family shared one phone and we had to stand in the kitchen—tethered to the wall—to use it. She also never mentioned that we would one day be telling future generations about life before a global pandemic, like when I was a kid people vacationed on giant petri dishes called “cruise ships”.

Many aspects of our daily life have changed this year, and it is likely that some might never go back to how they were pre-pandemic. There are some things about our new normal that I hope are here to stay, like doctor visits by teleconference and not going to work, but there are other parts of our lives that may be permanently scraped from the sidewalks of life that I will dearly miss, like body shots, blowing in babies’ faces, and salad bars.

I miss standing at Whole Foods elbow to elbow with a stranger—our breath echoing off the plexiglass—and tonging some lettuce into a brown paper box, then scooting past another person to add some edamame and approximately fourteen other unrelated ingredients and then tossing in some stuff that looks like it is already a tossed salad of some type, but with kale, and adding it on top of my independently made salad. Then I make my way up to the checkout where my salad is priced by weight and totals $37.

The salad bar at Whole Foods is the salad bar I admit that I visit, but I will also get the salad bar at places where it is completely inadvisable, even by the health department. When my kids were little I would take them to the local Pizza Hut, and we would dine inside the building. “When I was a kid we used to order our pizza for here!” The salad bar was lettuce and then just leftover pizza toppings, and I was given a wooden bowl about the size of a teacup so I had to pile my salad into a mountain covered with Ranch and then sprinkled with Baco’s.

When my daughter got older, we started going together to eat at Ruby Tuesday, especially when it was just the two of us, mainly because nobody else would ever agree to go there. I recently broke the news to her that Ruby Tuesday doesn’t have the salad bar anymore, and she gasped. I thought about all the senior citizens we would see while dining there and wondered what they are doing now for exercise. Going up to the salad bar, maybe even multiple times, carrying a plate while walking, the dexterity to work tongs, especially to grasp items like tiny cubes of ham, it could be in the Olympics. Dining from the salad bar was also a great way to show that they could still be independent. Often there would be a table where the oldest person was left behind and one of the younger diners, someone in their early eighties, would have to go get their salad for them. For that person the end is near, and thank goodness because no one should have to endure eating a salad bar salad made by someone else.

The salad that one makes at the salad bar would never be found on any kind of menu, unless it was a restaurant created by people tripping on acid. The salad bar salad is like a fingerprint. There are no two salad bar salads that are alike, and they are all disgusting. After I finish my salad I usually feel bad about myself, not just because of the excessive amount of calories that I consumed but also because of my choices. Why did I add the peas? What has happened in my life to make me think it was acceptable to add artichoke hearts and then proceed to choose blue cheese as my dressing?

I have heard that this pandemic might mean the end of the salad bar, and I am saddened about what this means for an entire way of life. I worry that one day I will have to tell my grandkids, “When I was a kid we used to order a meal and then with that meal, as a side dish, we could get something called the salad bar, which meant we had to get up from the table—where a waitress had just taken our order and would eventually deliver our other food that we only ordered because the salad bar alone was the same price as the meal plus the salad bar—and parade up to get our plates and then move like cattle down a line of chilled bowls full of delicious toppings like diced boiled egg, raw mushrooms, and banana pudding and then walk back to our tables completely embarrassed as we pass other tables with our salad of shame.”

Those were the days.