A Serious Salad Search: Sylvia Plath's Lost Salad Dressing

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[Flickr: sweetonveg]

Of course, Esther Greenwood from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath had her issues. But at least she didn't pick at her food. In Plath's autobiographical novel, at a particularly dreadful magazine luncheon, Esther says:

I bowed my head and secretly eyed the position of the bowls of caviar.... Under cover of the clinking of water goblets and silverware and bone china, I paved my plate with chicken slices. Then I covered the chicken slices with caviar thickly as if I were spreading peanut butter on a piece of bread. Then I picked up the chicken slices in my fingers one by one, rolled them so the caviar wouldn't ooze off and ate them.... Avocados are my favorite fruit. Every Sunday my grandfather used to bring me an avocado pear hidden at the bottom of his briefcase under six soiled shirts and the Sunday comics. He taught me how to eat avocados by melting grape jelly and French dressing together in a saucepan and filling the cup of the pear with the garnet sauce. I felt homesick for that sauce.

Intrigued by the adventures of this serious eater (despite the fact that Esther gets a spectacular case of food poisoning afterward) I looked and looked but couldn't find the recipe for the French dressing–grape jelly reduction praised by Plath. And I'm not the only SE'r who has wondered about this lost classic.

The closest I could find was Ina Garden's grapefruit avocado salad. But Ina's avocado salad uses mustard, which doesn't even hint at Plath's garnet sauce. However, one of the online commenters on Garten's salad stated that French dressing on avocados and ruby red grapefruit was a popular luncheon staple during the era of Plath's adolescence.

It sounded, from the description, that Sylvia/Esther's grandfather used a commercial red French dressing, also known as Catalina dressing, and grape jelly. I tried combining the two over medium heat and simmering. The result was a pure 1950s concoction, sickly sweet and something more appropriate for a Mad Men–style feast of cocktail meatballs and puff pastry–encased wieners than the delicate flesh of an avocado.

So instead, I decided to eat a tribute rather than a re-creation of Plath's beloved salad. Sliced ruby red grapefruit and avocado, drizzled with the rich, sweet, but more acidic taste of balsamic vinegar. Caviar and chicken on the side is optional.