No hint of garlic? Then fall, Caesar

The first rule in cooking should be, “Never take yourself too seriously.” The second rule in cooking should be, “Unless you’re making salad.”

Let me tell you about the chapon. The chapon (shah-POHN) is a piece of stale bread, preferably the heel, that has been rubbed all over with garlic or dipped in garlic-flavored oil. It’s used in salads: just before assembling and tossing his lettuce, a chef may very daintily rub his chapon over the inside of the salad bowl. If he’s feeling especially lusty, he might throw his chapon right in with the lettuce, apply the vinaigrette, and toss the whole thing together — but always remove his chapon immediately before serving. His chapon serves the purpose of adding the barest, most delicate hint of garlic to the salad. To include garlic in the actual vinaigrette would be inhuman.

So of course I had to try it. I decided to test the relative value of my chapon in a Caesar salad, a dish already known for being particular. Invented by Caesar Cardini in Tijuana in 1924, the original Caesar salad contained only romaine lettuce, garlic, olive oil, croutons, parmesan cheese and Worcestershire sauce. As for anchovies, typically the most distinctive ingredient in Caesar salad, Cardini did not approve; he thought the Worcestershire sauce was anchovy “enough.” I assembled my Caesar salad dressing — anchovy, as well as egg yolk, but God forbid direct garlic — rubbed my chapon, threw it into the bowl with romaine lettuce, tossed, added my dressing, tossed again and removed my chapon. Then I sat down. I took a deep breath. I tasted it.

I could not detect even the barest, most delicate hint of garlic. Perhaps my palate is too crude. Or my chapon needed more rubbing. But in any case, I’m back to rule one.

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