As the story goes, Robert H. Cobb, the owner of the Brown Derby, was scrounging through the legendary Hollywood restaurant’s walk–in for a late–night snack in 1937. He hauled out whatever came to hand: romaine, cooked chicken breast, tomatoes, Roquefort cheese, and hard–boiled eggs, along with some cooked bacon. Then he chopped them and tossed them with dressing. His accomplice on the midnight refrigerator raid was Sid Grauman, the owner of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Grauman liked the improv salad so much that he came in the next day and ordered a “Cobb salad.” It was an immediate hit.
Cool, light, filling, a cinch to toss together, and ideal for hot summer evenings, cobb salad also has a place of honor on my table at this time of year.
The trouble is, that with chicken, bacon, eggs, romaine, and tomatoes as essential building blocks, a cobb salad can be a problem for anyone trying to eat ethically. Typically, hogs and chickens are raised by the thousands in filthy, overcrowded Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). As Americans learned during the massive egg recall last summer, most laying hens live their entire lives unable to spread their wings or turn around in battery cages with no more floor space than a sheet of copier paper. They are cooped up in dank barns among rodents, swarming flies, and the carcasses of dead chickens. And tomatoes sold in supermarkets are planted and picked by some of the most abused farm laborers in the country.
This summer, I set out to assemble a cobb salad that I could eat with gusto—and good conscience.
Chicken was the first ingredient I ticked off my conscientious shopping list by picking up a package of breasts produced by Misty Knoll Farms, which happens to be located a few miles from my Vermont home. It was good to know that my salad was supporting a local enterprise that both raised and processed its own birds. But what drew me to Misty Knoll was what their meat lacked. Unlike mass–produced chickens, their flock is raised without antibiotics. Most large poultry producers steadily feed healthy animals antimicrobials, not to cure disease but just to promote growth, a practice that has led to the emergence of superbugs that are resistant to many of the drugs used to treat infected humans. Avoiding any meat that has been treated with low–level antibiotics is one of the most ethical choices a shopper can make because it preserves the efficacy of these wonder drugs for when they are needed for humans. Had home–state loyalties and food miles not been a factor, I also could have chosen any chicken labeled “no antibiotics added,” which, like “organic,” carries legal authority under United States Department of Agriculture rules. One widely available national brand that meets these specifications is Bell & Evans.
The pig that provided the bacon for my salad was a Berkshire (a fatty, heritage breed) that had spent its life rooting around the pastures of Vermont Heritage Grazers, a small farm, feeding on grasses and legumes that were supplemented by whey from local cheese makers and apples from neighboring orchards—a much more humane and piglike existence than that of a factory hog, crammed in a low–slung barn, cheek by jowl with thousands of others and never seeing the light of day or setting foot on anything other than cement. And like Misty Knoll’s chicken, that pig had never consumed antibiotics. Once nearly impossible, finding sustainably raised pork has become much easier lately. Do an Internet search for “pastured pork” and you’ll likely come across a source near you. Or buy from companies like Applegate Farms and Coleman Natural. Your pig might not have been raised on pasture, but at least its food won’t have been laced with drugs.
Normally, tomatoes would have been a no–brainer. I grow my own or buy local tomatoes from the farmers’ market when they are in season. At other times, I avoid fresh tomatoes. Commercially raised tomatoes found year–round in supermarkets have to be harvested by hand, and workers at the hands of unscrupulous “crew bosses” often earn less than the minimum wage. They are regularly exposed to toxic pesticides that cause cancer, respiratory problems, neurological damage, and birth defects. In some cases, tomato pickers are victims of modern–day slavery. Although the most egregious cases have come from Florida, the same agribusinesses and migrant work crews that produce tomatoes there move their operations northward along the East Coast as far as New Jersey in the warm months.
Unfortunately, this year has been exceptionally cold and rainy in the Northeast. Local, field–raised tomatoes are still a couple of weeks away. I opted for tomatoes grown in a hydroponic greenhouse about an hour from my home. Vermont Hydroponic is owner–operated, and pays its staff well. Because its crops are grown indoors in a controlled environment that is free from insects and germs, its tomatoes need none of the 110 pesticides that a commercial grower can spray on his crop. But the taste of an out–of–season hydroponic tomato is a poor imitation of the real thing. They look pretty. They add appealing red splashes to the salad. As for taste, I say wait for the real deal. So, if you can’t grow your own, or buy from local farms or hydroponic growers in season, skip the red fruit.
Although we are bereft of tomatoes, lettuce is flourishing around here. I took advantage by buying a head of romaine from Orb Weaver Farm, an organic grower based a few miles from my home. In addition to being free of chemicals and grown and picked by the owners themselves, my salad’s romaine had been harvested exactly one day before I brought it home. The produce section also brimmed over with bags of romaine shipped across the country from California’s Salinas Valley. Not only did those bags from far away present sustainability issues related to transporting them thousands of food miles, but they had use–by dates several days in the future. “Breathable” plastic bags allow greens to stay fresh (or so producers say) for as long as 17 days. But they also provide perfect incubators for bacteria if they stand unrefrigerated, and have been responsible for numerous outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella.
As for the eggs in my salad, they came courtesy of the 11 hens who peck around our yard, supplying eggs to my family and the neighbors. But if I had to buy eggs, I would opt for ones from free–range hens in cartons labeled “USDA Organic.” The chives in my salad were snipped from my backdoor herb garden, and as a gesture of home–state loyalty, I sweetened the dressing with maple syrup instead of sugar. I substituted Green Mountain Blue Cheese (one of the artisanal brands that have sprung up in this country wherever cows are milked) for imported Roquefort. Although the cows that produced it stay in the barn year–round, the supplemental income from the cheese business has allowed a 14–generation family farm to keep afloat during the recent crisis in dairy prices. I had to cheat on a few other ingredients. There was no watercress to be found, so I tossed in a little farmers’ market arugula to add a peppery touch. Sadly, Vermont grows neither lemons nor avocados, and a cobb salad without avocado is like the Brown Derby without its hat motif, so I bought organic ones from California.
My ethical cobb salad came with a few tradeoffs. I spent more than I would have liked on organic red wine vinegar and organic Dijon mustard. My pastured bacon was $9.19 a pound. (Hormel’s was going for $4.29.) On the other hand, local organic romaine was 80 cents cheaper per head than the California stuff, and the organic avocados I picked up at the co–op, to my surprise, were 50 cents less expensive than the conventional ones at a nearby supermarket. As I chopped those avocados, I was acutely aware of the distance they had traveled to reach my salad bowl, but hoped my efforts to source other ingredients locally would compensate for my avocado “sin.”
But what I lost in cost, I more than gained in flavor. The chicken was firm and clean–tasting; the bacon was fatty, crisp, and porky; the eggs were rich with deep yellow–orange yolks; and the lettuce crisp and crunchy.
The secret to making an ethical cobb salad, like the Layered Cobb Salad published in Gourmet in 2002, is simple: Use the very best–tasting ingredients you can lay your hands on—which means local, sustainable, organic, seasonal. Which, come to think of it, are a lot like the fixings Robert Cobb hauled out of that refrigerator nearly three–quarters of a century ago—before the dawn of industrial agriculture.
Barry Estabrook is the author of the newly published Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit and a longtime Gourmet magazine contributor.