(CNN) -- There was a time in my life when I thought I knew a thing or two -- about life, about being a reasonably functional member of society, about language, about being a food editor. That phase of my existence ended several weeks ago when the meatloaf salad showed up in my workplace cafeteria.
Several colleagues alerted me to its presence, sending pictures of the cut-up chunks of meatloaf with commentary such as "Really?!" "WTF" and "EEEWWWWW! Is this really salad?"
Seeing as I'm a journalist and all, I took it upon myself to investigate.
The dish was indeed on the salad bar, labeled "meatloaf salad" at 50 cents an ounce, and it tasted like cold chunks of decently prepared meatloaf. I posted a picture online and promptly questioned everything I have come to understand about myself and what I know about the world.
Stuff mixed with lettuce, I get that. Various materials held together with mayonnaise, I understand. Fruitstuffs tumbled about with marshmallows and cream, I don't so much dig, but it has been codified as salad for me in the past, so I accept it as such.
But not this.
"You haven't been the same since the meatloaf salad, have you?" asked one concerned citizen of Instagram. "No," I replied. "None of us have."
People, including some who I've never met in real life, have started to present me with documentation of their meals, pleading for verification.
"Does this heap of beans tossed in dressing count as salad? How about this torn-up sandwich thrown on top of a pile of bagged spring mix? What about this meat I mixed with mayonnaise and threw on a lettuce leaf? Is it salad?"
Yes. Yes, it is, and I say this with the backing of several intensive weeks of subsequent salad research that consisted of deep dives into my vintage cookbook library (including but not limited to titles such as "Favorite Recipes of America: Salads" from 1968, "White Trash Cooking" from 1986, "Clementine Paddleford's Cook Young Cookbook" from 1966, "The Silent Hostess Treasure Book" from 1930, "Metropolitan Cook Book" from 1957 and "The Art of Serving Food Attractively" from 1951) and asking a bunch of people on Twitter, "Does X count as salad?"
After encountering published recipes for Guess What Salad (the "what" turns out to be corned beef suspended in lemon gelatin), frankfurter-potato Salad, ham-lima Salad, Macedoine Salad (that's cooked carrots, peas, lima beans and cauliflower in French dressing) and Pink Arctic Freeze couched under the salad rubric and consuming approximately 2,943 research salads in the matter of a few weeks' time, I'm issuing my verdict: Sure. Sure, that counts as salad, if you say so.
I'm not any kind of professional salad-ologist; I'm just a girl standing in front of a stream of Instagrammed and Tweeted and Facebooked bowls of cut-up meat, fruit and lettuce, wondering how my life got to this point.
Do you want it to be salad? Did someone else say "salad" at you when they wrote the recipe or put it on the menu? It's salad. I just pointed at my greyhound and told him he was salad, and he sort of grunted and went back to licking himself, so I guess he's salad now, too.
I am salad. You are salad. We are all salad. Let us together collapse into the salad singularity.
But, if you want to get fussier about it, here's a rough taxonomy of salads a person might encounter out in the wild.
These are salads for which there is an accepted ingredient list, though the format may vary. People like to get creative with plating and deconstruction and "takes" on these dishes, and hey, that's none of my business. Let your salad flag fly. But this all goes to say that my tuna Nicoise had darn well better include tuna (duh), potatoes, green beans, anchovies, lettuce, hard-boiled egg, tomatoes, olives and a vinaigrette dressing, or don't call it tuna Nicoise.
Likewise, that Caesar needs to have romaine lettuce, croutons and Parmesan cheese doused in a dressing that contains anchovies, or you need to call it something else. Add a modifier if need be: kale Caesar or "Caesar where we cheaped out on the anchovies" but please give the classics their due.
These salads include but are not limited to: Caesar, Nicoise, Caprese, horiatiki (Greek), panzanella, Cobb, chef, Lyonnaise, fattoush, ohitashi.
Several years ago, I attended a food and culture symposium where a speaker described Charlotte, North Carolina's emerging ethnic enclaves as a "salad bowl" rather than a "melting pot," because the people and their businesses merged with the existing population in a mutually beneficial way and yet maintained their distinct identities. Good at lunch, great in life. Have at it.
Take a tossed salad, make an office worker feel slightly power-mad by giving them some say in the ingredients, dazzle them with a little forceful mezzaluna action, and you shall capture their affection -- mind, mouth and wallet -- for all of eternity. Yes, you, Just Salad, Chop't, Saladworks and the rest of the Big Salad cabal. And would it be easier if I just gave you my bank's routing number?
Well, aren't you fancy? Someone has plated the salad in a particular way, maybe with a little ring of crab atop it or some frizzled onions placed just so. There is art to this thing, it's usually already dressed -- drizzled, even, and arranged for maximum aesthetic delight and flavor interplay -- so you just dig in and savor, ya hear?
Various chain restaurants and celebrity chefs have also made additions to the modern composed salad canon with their signature takes on the Chinese chicken salad, Southwest salad and others. We thank you for your contributions to the genre.
Should the composed salad making spirit happen to overcome you at home, chef and local food evangelist Alice Waters once wrote that she has but one rule: "As for what to include in such a salad and how to dress it, taste each ingredient before you decide." Alice Waters gets way better vegetables than you do.
There are greens. They are dressed. Perhaps there is a shaving of cheese and possibly a carrot shred or cherry tomato half for color, but they're easy, these greens.
This salad (sometimes called a "garden salad") comes with the purchase of an entree. Lettuce and tomato are inevitable. Cucumber and carrots are a possibility. There may be an errant crouton or two. The dressing is of your choosing (unless you are eating sushi, in which case it's carrot-ginger, which is invariably the best thing about the salad), but you should probably go with ranch.
Now it's a party! Likely not many people are busting out the seven-layer extravaganza for Wednesday supper, but I am not here to judge. I'm just here to scoop through the glorious strata of cheese, eggs, meat, mayonnaise and assorted vegetables until my mind touches the void.
It has beans in it. In a dressing that's usually a vinaigrette. Sometimes onions. There you go.
Featured ingredient salad
An iceberg wedge with some blue cheese dressing and maybe a few bacon crumbles is one of modern culinary society's most perfect achievements. For some people, beets tossed in a little bit of dressing is salad nirvana, but I don't care for beets, so I'll have to trust them. Tomatoes with a little bit of olive oil and balsamic dressing, maybe a few scattered herbs, is a dandy salad, but add mozzarella, and you're dabbling in Caprese territory, and that has rules. Watermelon and feta -- you two crazy kids go get to know each other. You're all each other needs.
I saw a woman on the subway once eating avocado salad from a plastic grocery store tub, and she seemed happier than I have ever been about anything in my entire life.
And I'm throwing potato salad in here because otherwise I'd have to spend another 1,000 words parsing regional and moral variations, and no one needs that. Suffice it to say: mayo, no mayo, pick a lane.
Here's some cut-up fruit all mixed together. Maybe it has some syrup on it, maybe vinegar, maybe not. Sometimes it has onions or shallots in it, which is just weird. Please enjoy.
Honestly, I was on the fence about whether this is a salad or a condiment, but seeing as "slaw mix" is sold next to bagged salad in most grocery stores, a case can be made. Salad is a many-splendored thing, and shredded, vinaigrette-dressed vegetables with crunch aplenty seem closer to the nexus of my salad consciousness than meat chunks. I'll allow it.
These salads are the stuff of comedy to many people, a throwback "ugh" at an American population as yet unhipped to the ways of "organic" and "farm-to-buffet" and whatnot. Those people are missing out, because these homages to the early-to-mid-20th-century salad artisans are not only architecturally interesting when allowed to set in a festive mold but also madly delicious in both sweet and savory forms. To turn one's nose up at a tomato aspic is to pooh-pooh pleasure and a chance to chow down on some living, wiggling history.
Some years ago, Taco Bell ran a tongue-in-cheek ad campaign about how their hard-fried shells filled with beef, beans, cheese and vegetable matter were "technically" a salad. OK, I'll buy that, because that's how I'm rolling linguistically these days, but you're not fooling anyone, least of all your health care professional, into thinking this is a healthy decision on your part. (Does a salad need to be healthy? Discuss.)
Mayonnaise is something of a magical substance. It's simple in composition -- eggs, oil and a hint of vinegar -- but it possesses the power to transform any random foodstuffs into "salad." Got cold poultry that needs to be dispatched? BOOM! Chicken salad. Leftover macaroni? Macaroni salad! Some random things from the crisper and a handful of cheese shreds or nuts or whatever? Salad to the rescue! And this is not a condemnation, by the way, but rather a celebration of the American sense of self determination and resourcefulness.
Caveat: If it's a meat, egg or fish salad, it requires at least one lettuce leaf, or it's just sandwich filling.
Includes/not limited to: chicken salad, egg salad, ham salad, Waldorf salad, macaroni salad, various church salads that often include raisins and carrots and nuts and I'm getting very hungry right now.
A person may also call this a "fluff" or "dessert" salad, but there is often some kind of creamy binding agent (Cool Whip, cream cheese, sour cream or the like), a high possibility of marshmallows and some manner of fruit. Sometimes, these salads have Snickers bars, red hots or circus peanuts in them. Strawberries, pretzels, cream cheese, Jell-O and sugar? That's a thing.
I grew up in a home where "Aunt Catherine Salad" (fruit cocktail, cream cheese, sugar and Cool Whip) was in semi-regular rotation, and look how I turned ... OK, maybe not the greatest example, but ambrosia salad (both with and without whipped cream and marshmallows but definitely including oranges and coconut) fits into this category, which is reason enough for it to exist.
Pasta salad/grain salad
Perhaps people cook pasta, quinoa, rice and other carbs expressly for the sake of producing these salads, but I can't help but feel that leftovers are being foisted. I have no beef with leftovers, but at least be up-front about it. Cold starches like these absolutely require some kind of crunchy textural element (celery is just fine), or else you're just gumming down old fusilli and bulgur, and that's a little depressing.
Cut up meat, no mayo. YOLO.
Have I neglected your favorite salad? Probably. Feel free to scream at me in the comments.