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Salad

I had my first salad in the fall of 1976. I was 13, the standard age when American girls have their dietary privileges torn away from them - their All-Access Passes to the Universal Amphitheater of food abruptly voided, if you will.

I'd spent that last summer of unconditional self-love with my friends Audrey McNulty and Heather Hodge. We were grotesquely unpopular, sure. We were of odd size, odd shape, odd color. We tried out for the talent show and didn't get in. Our act was Heather lip-synching Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" while Audrey and I walked on and off the stage bearing illustrative props. "You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht . . ." (I walk by in a white "yachting" cap.) "You had one eye on the mirror as you watched yourself go by." (Audrey walks by holding up a metal garbage-can lid. Upon it is carefully taped an eye.)

And yet, during this last golden year, these last pre-salad days, we were constantly collapsing into giggles. Everything in life was hilarious. Possibly because we were high - and I mean absolutely flying - on Snackin' Cake. You remember Snackin' Cake, don't you?

Just add water, even the pan is included. The flavors were rich, fabulously seductive, suggesting roots in the deep, mysterious lexicon of Nabisco: Banana Walnut, Chocolate Fudge, Wild Blueberry, Raspberry Swirl. We'd make a new flavor every hour, read Linda Goodman's Love Signs, run, scream, do cannonballs into the pool: boom, boom, boom!

But in September, darkness began to fall. And the very first signpost was my mother's semiotically loaded introduction of the idea of the Salad. It was a Saturday afternoon. It was just the two of us alone. I can still picture it as though it were yesterday - sun slanting through the window, laundry thrumming in the wash.

"Sometimes," my mother was intimating, "I find I don't want hot dogs or Spaghetti-O's or chocolate cake for lunch."

"Uh-huh," I said, shifting my weight in my sneakers, waiting for the punch line.

"Sometimes," she continued, pausing a moment to look within herself - and, in so doing, seeing a thing that surprised her - "I find I just want to have a Salad!"

She said it as though Salad represented freedom from one's earthly cares. As though sometimes a woman just wanted to shake her hair loose in a private moment and run unfettered through a breezy little field of Salad. All around one was the drudgery of pot roast, ham, sausage, pigs in blankets, Sloppy Joes, clawing one down. "Ooh, it's all so heavy. What would really pick me up is some Salad!"

I heard that telltale upswoop in pitch, the voice cracking with false cheer, and my blood went cold. I recognized this, with an unerring sixth sense, as my mother's Treasures of Womanhood tone. Experience indicated that Treasures of Womanhood were generally Treasures one wished to return to the sender. It was always your mom gently taking you by the hand, leading you down the hall, reaching into a secret drawer scented with treacly verbena or potpourri, and pulling out some hideous object that said: "Your life is over. YOU CAN NEVER SWIM AGAIN."

"It is something we call . . ." (bright smile) "a menstrual cycle!" Or, "This is what is known as . . . Kotex! I find I just snap it in . . ." (hands fly up, waggle whimsically) "and forget about it!" Again images of the field, the breezy running.

Until this point in time, Salad-y things in the Loh household had posed little threat. Salad was not something a person took seriously. Salad was a thing that existed only in my mother's fevered imagination. But not anymore.

That afternoon, out came the iceberg lettuce and brand-new bottle of Kraft Thousand Island dressing. My mother's new weapon - she flourished it with pride, defiance. "See? It's Kraft. This is a real food. It's a real thing people eat. It's not something I just made up."

In short, my iceberg had arrived . . . and I and my runaway acne and size 12 behind (in my favorite horizontal - that's right, horizontal - striped bell-bottoms) were being ordered to get on it. Sensing there was no choice, I stepped on, the rope was cut, and, with only lettuce to bolster me, I began my polar drift toward an unwanted Womanhood.

Life in my barren Salad kingdom, the colorless tundra, was dull but not uneventful.

Grandly remote from the whims and pleasures and taste sensations enjoyed by ordinary people, I got huger and huger. In college, as I toiled miserably at an a impossible major (theoretical physics), my weight approached 170 pounds. Stretch-waistband ethnic skirts appeared. A Jane Seymour natural wave was attempted, a spongy Jackson Five 'fro the result.

All around me, it seemed, in a 360-degree circle, were people eating fried chicken and pizza and steak as fast as they could 24 hours a day. But not me. I was in exile from that sunny land. Like a lonely dog with a bone, I ritually chawed my way through Salad. Salad Salad Salad. At the Salad bar, I had my routine. I'd begin with a wooden bowl big as my head. Into it went iceberg lettuce. Kidney beans. Garbanzo beans. Sprouts. Bacon. Cheese. Croutons. Raisins. Sunflower seeds. Ranch dressing. Bleu-cheese dressing. Eggs. Chili. Macaroni. Yogurt. Car keys. Tampax. Signed photo of the Bay City Rollers . . . Salad became a psychic purse into which I threw my woes. Soon there was no Salad bowl big enough to house the theater of Me. Others would have finished their burgers and run them off already. Still I'd sit in the corner in my sweaty batik tent, carrying on an exhausting two-hour relationship with my Salad.

As I moved toward 30, however, things finally changed. I quit science. I quit college. I quit misery. I quit eating salads. And as soon as I did, I dropped a full fifth of my body weight. No lie. I was free. Cue a shot of me running, breezily, away from Salad.

I mean, sure, I'll still sometimes get a Salad for lunch. But only if it is drenched in cheese, meat, bread or oil - preferably all four at once.

If I'm in a mood for something "light," I'll take the tasty Chicken Caesar coated with Parmesan cheese and anchovy and oil and lovely croutons at Delmonico's in Encino, knowing full well the plate probably holds twice as much fat as a standard seafood entree. I get up from the table reeling. But so what? I'm a grown woman. I need to eat.

Like many others in the San Gabriel Valley area, I've been eating the Dianne Salad at Green Street East in Pasadena for literally decades now. It's a sweetish pastiche of chicken, almond slivers, sesame seeds and I don't know what else. The perfect pre-shopping ladies' lunch, you eat it with moist zucchini bread smeared with butter before going off to see what Macy's has in a linen cream size 14 pant.

In a whimsical mood? How about the Spinach Salad with candied walnuts and Gorgonzola cheese at Maria's Italian Kitchen? I ask you, when are candied walnuts and Gorgonzola cheese not a good idea? The answer: never.

Our Friends From the East also provide us with diverting Salads. Particularly memorable, in my opinion, is the Salmon Skin Salad at Sushi Nozawa in Toluca Lake. It's sweet and salty and crispy and fatty all at the same time. Hey: It's a burger and fries.

The Cobb Salad at Solley's Deli in Sherman Oaks, I've found, can be used to plug up the gaping hole of a Monday depression. No frills, it is the Cobb Salad you dream of. We are talking the conventional bacon, triangle of turkey, triangle of avocado and triangle of bleu cheese, so that on a bleu day, if you really feel like eating a big heaping forkful of nothing but bleu cheese or forkful of crispy bacon fat, you can.

By comparison, earlier in my magazine-writing life I used to get a lot of free lunches at Maple Drive in Beverly Hills, and, frankly, I don't think the Cobb was as good. In an effort to boldly fix everything that wasn't broken, the Cobb Salad there didn't have the well-defined high-fat triangles of our dreams, but was chopped into little bits and then tossed. I couldn't make out the bacon in all of this. I needed the bacon.

Another time I went to Maple Drive thinking about chicken salad, and I was really thinking about a diner-style chicken salad - a puree of chicken and mayonnaise that pleasingly fluffs. But no. Deep into Spa Cuisine Gulch, I was faced with an aggressively lean chicken breast, freshly seared and toned, perched on what seemed to be a pile of naked arugula. The whole thing stank with Discipline and Drive. This was inedible to me. (In defense of Maple Drive, the tacos are good. They are also $17. And so it goes.)

As is probably clear by now, I see the Salad as a platform, a proscenium, a kind of staging area, if you will, for tasty high-fat morsels one is generally not allowed to eat in ordinary life. I'll try to pick out the tasty morsels if possible and leave the lettuce, the part that can truly be called Salad . . .

Because, I realize, I hate Salad. Salad will not make you thin. Salad will not make you popular. Salad is no fun at all. In fact, when I think of all the years I wasted eating Salad . . . well, it's like all the other wastage, all the white noise, all the little pointless natterings and worry beads of female life - the thank-you cards you write to people who just don't care, the time you spend fluffing bows on Christmas gifts that will be torn open anyway, the little nervous compliments you hurl at others ("I love your shoes!") when, truly, silence would be preferable. Salad, in short, is a Barbie with hair you can style and curl and braid! Is that something you want to eat? Not me. Unless it has goat cheese in it. If goat cheese is involved, count me in.

Recommended salads: Delmonico's, 16358 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 986-0777; Green Street East, 146 S. Shoppers St., Pasadena, (626) 577-7170; Maria's Italian Kitchen, 13353 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 906-0783; Sushi Nozawa, 11288 Ventura Blvd., Toluca Lake, (818) 508-7017; Solley's Deli, 4578 Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks, (818) 905-5774; Maple Drive, 345 N. Maple Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 274-9800.

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Delmonico's Steak and Lobster House
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Maria's Italian Kitchen

13353 Ventura Blvd.
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423

818-906-0783

www.mariasitaliankitchen.com