“Why is it called Caesar salad?” asked a young pupil. “Is it because Julius Caesar liked it?”
“I don’t think so,” was my reply. I had given the same answer before when asked that question, with the vague and incorrect feeling that it was a gimmicky, made-up name.
But this time there was a further question, from another pupil. “What does salad days mean? Mrs (x) said she had been to Peru in her salad days.”
A case for the OED:
‘Days of youthful inexperience.’
The first use given is in Shakespeare. Charmian has just reminded Cleopatra of how she once admired Caesar.
Cleopatra: My salad days,
When I was green in judgement; cold in blood,
To say as I said then! —Antony & Cleopatra, 1.5.72
Whether Shakespeare coined the phrase, or whether it was in current use, is unclear; but green as a term of reproof for naivety certainly was. This usage continued well into Victorian times, with variants. Lupin Pooter teases his father with, “Have you an estate in Greenland?” —G. & W. Grossmith, Diary of a Nobody
When Oliver Twist falls in with the crowd of young ruffians, he is introduced:
“A new pal,” replied Jack Dawkins, pulling Oliver forward.
“Where did he come from?”
“Greenland.” —Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, I. viii. 130
And in L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, set in 1900, the ‘greenness’ of the boy Leo, when he is used and subtly bullied by the young woman Marian, becomes almost a motif, and Marian even gives him a green bicycle for his 13th birthday.
Most of this seems forgotten now, and salad days is used, especially by Americans, to refer wistfully to the happy days of one’s youth.
As for Caesar, the OED has the following:
‘Probably from the name of Caesar Cardini (1896–1956), Italian-born restaurateur in Tijuana, Mexico, who is said to have devised the salad in 1924… a salad typically consisting of cos lettuce, garlic, croutons, and anchovies, dressed with olive oil, lemon juice, raw or coddled egg, and parmesan cheese…’
But did the Romans eat salad? Yes: there is material to be found in Pliny the Elder and Apicius; and the word, widespread in European languages, comes from the verb salare, to salt.