This article is part of our Cocktail Chatter series, where we dive into the wild, weird, and wondrous corners of history to share over a cocktail and impress your friends.
Ah, the wedge salad: a hunk of iceberg lettuce smothered with blue cheese, tomatoes, red onion, and bacon bits. It’s arguably one of the most popular salads in America, and can be found on steakhouse menus near and far. While the salad’s accouterments are the biggest pull, the specific lettuce itself is the hearty backbone of the dish, providing crunch and texture to the decadent pile. But the wedge salad’s ubiquitous lettuce wasn’t actually always called iceberg, and while its name has nothing to do with the Titanic, it still may have everything to do with long-haul transportation.
First cultivated in California in 1894, iceberg was originally called crisphead lettuce. And as the green is composed of nearly 96 percent water, crisphead lettuce was a perfect name to capture its essence. Still, this high water content didn’t contribute to the produce’s future freeze-adjacent title. Instead, the name is rumored to reference the way lettuce was once packed for cross-country transport: As iceberg was created before the age of modern refrigeration, farmers would pack their lettuce heads surrounded by heaps of crushed ice before loading the containers on trains for East Coast deliveries.
Salad greens company Fresh Express claims that its founder, produce farmer Bruce Church, was the first to coin the term iceberg lettuce. On its website, the brand asserts that Church started farming the variety in the 1920s and ‘30s before starting an ice company, through which he created ice-packed rail cars to transport the lettuce heads cross-country. According to Fresh Express, once people took notice of the method, they started calling the produce iceberg lettuce and “the name stuck.”
But despite the brand’s claims, mentions of iceberg lettuce appear to date much further back than the 1930s. One 1891 edition of Centralia, Wisconsin’s now-defunct “Centralia Enterprise and Tribune,” advertised the sale of two heads of California iceberg lettuce for 23 cents. Additionally, a separate 1895 edition of Topeka magazine “Kansas Farmer” praised the beauty and superb nature of the “new Iceberg Lettuce.”
Despite iceberg lettuce’s mainstream success throughout the 1900s, by the turn of the century, interest in the produce had started to decline as consumers turned to leafier greens that offered more nutritional value. Even so, the wedge salad remains a mainstay on menus nationwide — no matter what the star of the dish is called.