December 26, 2016
I grew up in a family that put salad on the table at the same time as the rest of the meal. I married into a family that does the same. However, in the years between leaving home to go to college and getting married I most definitely converted to serving salad after the main part of the meal was over. Notice, I didn’t say main course because the other change I made was thinking of the meal as comprising an antipasto (even if it is just a nibble of cheese and a cracker for a family meal) followed by, what Italians would call, the first course (il primo piatto) followed by a second course (il secondo piatto).
In an Italian meal, the first course is usually pasta, or soup, or risotto. The second course usually consists of meat or fish with several side dishes (contorni). After that comes the salad. Granted, there are exceptions to this sequence, even in Italy. One of the most classic exceptions is serving Risotto alla Milanese with a breaded and fried veal chop. OK, so these days, I try not to eat baby animals, so veal is pretty much off the menu at our house, but the point is Risotto alla Milanese is typically served with the meat, not before the meat.
The general rule that the sequence is antipasto, then first course, then second course, then salad was made abundantly clear when my Italian tutor had dinner at our house a few years ago. For some reason, even though my in-laws grew up in Italy, we served spaghetti and meatballs (very good spaghetti and meatballs, mind you!). Where it got interesting, however, is that we all ate the spaghetti and meatballs at the same time (for full disclosure, I didn’t touch my salad until afterwards). My tutor, hailing from Italy however, ate her pasta first. Only then did she put a meatball or two on her plate for her second course. Only after that did she touch her salad!
When I am serving dinner for company, the salad always comes after the second course. I’d rather not serve salad than serve it with the rest of the meal. Salads, by design, have sharp dressings meant to cleanse the palate. You can’t go back and forth between a subtly seasoned dish (whether it be pasta or fish or meat) and salad and do justice to the subtlety of the first. The vinegar and/or lemon juice and/or mustard (and/or whatever else you put in your salad dressing) doesn’t allow that. Forget what it does to the wine that you’ve paired with the dish! If it’s just family, however, in the interest of domestic harmony, the salad goes on the table at the beginning. I still don’t eat mine till the end but I can’t say the same for others.