Once upon a time, iceberg lettuce conquered American tables. It rolled off refrigerated train cars onto tables in St. Louis and Tallahassee, Wichita and Omaha, Tucson and Baltimore. And everywhere it went, it remained as crisp as the day it was cut from its roots in California fields. With few exceptions, if you were served lettuce, it was iceberg. Eventually people began to wonder why their salad greens were exceptionally sturdy but not much else.
But then came mesclun, a French-inspired mélange of young lettuces and other leafy greens, which promised all the variety, color, and flavor that iceberg lacked. Look at the lettuce selection in most supermarkets today and you'd have good reason to think we've come a long way since those iceberg-only days.
You'd have good reason to think that, but you'd be mistaken.
Even as demand grew for more varied salad greens, the high expectations set by iceberg's heartiness and shelf-stability remained. Growers tried to meet them by packing rigid plastic cartons with pre-mixed greens that could survive cross-country shipment, if just barely. At a glance it seems like an improvement, but it doesn't often taste like it. The baby spinach is muddy, the arugula is as peppery as a dusty old tin of the pre-ground spice, the other greens are too young to have developed any of their real flavor. Whatever little structure they'd managed to develop before being plucked largely fades in transit. You can master the perfect vinaigrette, but add even a drop of it to most store-bought salad mixes and the greens wither like toilet tissue. At least iceberg is honest in its narrow ambitions. Today's pre-mixed lettuces are frequently something worse, pretenders that fall short on all fronts.
What to do? Try not to buy that stuff. Like ripe tomatoes, peaches, and sweet corn, tender greens fade quickly once harvested, especially lettuce leaves that have been separated from the head. Instead, look for whole heads that are still lively, and make your own mixes with those.
If you have a local farmers market, that's by far your best bet, since the lettuces will be more recently picked and have travelled shorter distances, buying you more time to enjoy them in their prime. The shelf-life you'll get out of your own salads made from whole lettuce heads and other freshly picked greens will outlast those pre-made alternatives by a long shot. My wife and I often prep our own mixes, washing and drying the leaves, cutting them into smaller pieces, and then loosely packing them into containers, and they're just as lively several days later.
I take some inspiration from the Roman mixed green salad called misticanza. It's traditionally made from various wild greens like arugula, chicory, dandelion, fennel, and anise, which means assembling a perfect replica elsewhere is unlikely. More important is to channel the spirit of the salad by tossing together a collection of herbs and leafy greens, whether wild or cultivated, that play similar roles. Can't find wild fennel? Use the frond from farm-grown fennel instead. Nowhere to gather wild chicory where you live? Grab chicories that are available to you, like escarole, endive, and radicchio. As long as some are tender, some bitter, some herbaceous, you'll be all set.
In the off-season, when tender green lettuces aren't so great, I leave them behind, instead falling back on reliable hearty options like romaine, radicchio, endive, kale, and more.
If you live in a more rural area, it helps to remember that a salad may be growing right outside your window or along your driveway. I once worked on a farm in the Southwest of France, and the first night I was there the farmer suggested we make a salad for dinner. I asked where the greens were, and she pointed to the untended field outside her house. I spent the next several minutes grabbing handfuls of small dandelion leaves from the grass outside until I'd filled a large bowl. Each night thereafter, I'd wander out and find our salad in whichever direction I walked.
The truth is, when your salads are fresh and thoughtfully composed, you don't need to know how to make a vinaigrette. A splash of olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and maybe, just maybe, a few drops of lemon juice or vinegar is all it really needs.