Saturday, June 6, 2009

Wop Salad

Political correctness, it seems, invades our First Amendment rights almost everywhere, including recipe names. But I was never one for political correctness. If someone is offended at a word and therefore demands I stop using it, despite the fact I am not using it in a deprecating, degrading or inflamatory way, my rebuttal is don't listen to me. Or don't read my blog.

According to conventional wisdom, "wop" is an American English pejorative ethnic slur for an Italian. It is derived from the Neapolitan word "guappo" (often pronounced simply as "guap'" in the regional dialect), meaning a person who flaunts an overbearingly cocky and swaggering attitude. In Italy, the term "guappo" is still used, often sarcastically, to describe those young native men who try too hard to act brave, play cool, impress the girls, act arrogant and pick fights among other "guappos." In the U.S., we would simply call them punks.

"Wop salad” became popular with Sicilian immigrants to New Orleans by at least 1930. It was a longtime favorite dish on Creole-Italian menus across the Crescent City. The salad can contain ingredients such as anchovies, celery, bell peppers, olives, onions, garlic, Gorgonzola cheese, capers, olive oil, and vinegar. It was very popular throughout Texas until 1970, especially in cities such as Corpus Christi, Austin and San Antonio.

Nobody in Texas or New Orleans, and certainly not Italian-Americans, seemed to mind the term at least as applied to this dish, which would probably still be on restaurant menus under its old name if it weren't for out-of-towners who were kind enough to point out that this word is an ethnic slur. Accordingly, the dish's name has been changed on most menus to "Italian salad," which, to me, misses the point. Eating a wop salad is a hell of lot more fun than eating an Italian salad, and after all, I don't use the word to summarily describe any other Italian dish, e.g."Baked Wop Meat Sauce."

This is actually the very first recipe I ever learned, and the very first dish I ever made at about the age of nine or ten. My dad would set out all the ingredients and let me slice, dice and concoct the salad. I still today have the salad bowl that my mother received as a wedding gift in the 1940s, and use it frequently to make this and other salads, including the recipe that precedes this, My Version of Caesar's Salad.

My parents called it a wop salad because that is what it was called. I can also recall seeing it named as a wop salad on more than one occasion, including Luigi's, our neighborhood Italian restaurant, and on the chow line at Furr's Cafeteria, where our family would dine about once every other month as a special treat. Yes, in those days, a cafeteria was considered a treat, with white table cloths and live piano music, and little old blue-haired ladies in starched white uniforms with aprons and little frilly caps circling the dining room, refilling your ice tea and water glasses.

Over the years, I have adapted this recipe to my tastes, while being true to its core ingredients. I leave out the celery because I'm not a fan of celery as a salad ingredient. The basic concept of this salad being of Italian origin in the first place lays in the classic antipasto platter which contains many of these same ingredients. But I don't ever recall seeing celery on an antipasto platter.

I have seen some recipes for this dish that contain garbanzo beans (or chick peas as they are sometimes also called), and indeed garbanzo beans are a frequent item in antipasto. Personally, I don't care for them. They taste like wet cardboard. Use them if you're so inclined, but I do not list them in my ingredients.

My recipe does, however, contain anchovies which is a classic and necessary ingredient for the traditional wop salad. I use either flat anchovies, or anchovies that are rolled around a caper.

I think anchovies have gotten a bad rap because people have been brain-washed into believing they don't taste good, or they have only experienced cheap brands of anchovies that have not been properly filleted, and contain those itty-bitty fish bones.

King Oscar is a top-of-the-line Norwegian brand that you should try before you discard the notion that these delicious little salty gems must remain a key ingredient of this salad. King Oscar anchovies have been correctly filleted, are packed in olive oil, and contain no artificial ingredients or preservatives.

As far as I'm concerned, you cannot have a wop salad without anchovies. Omit the anchovies and you have to call this salad something else, say, an Italian salad. Yes, that's it! An Italian salad is a politically corrected wop salad without the anchovies. Click here and here to see these two varieties of anchovies from the King Oscar website.

Finally, a word about the dressing. I am giving you another of Jeff Smith's 1984 Frugal Gourmet cookbook recipes, that he called "Basic Fennel Dressing." To me, that sounds rather utilitarian, and while it does contain fennel, that is not the overall flavor of the dressing. It is a very good basic vinaigrette for this salad, however. That said, these days, I tend to use Newman's Own Olive Oil and Vinegar Dressing, right out of the bottle. Click here to see the product on the Newman's Own website. There are some cooking snobs who will fault me for this. Fine. Better that than faulting me for not changing the name of this recipe just to be politically correct.

For the dressing

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup peanut oil or canola oil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup white vinegar
1 tsp sugar or more to taste (you can substitute Splenda)
1 tbsp dry powdered mustard (like, Coleman's)
1 tsp fennel, ground
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/8 cup dried parsley
salt and pepper to taste

For the salad

1 medium head of Iceberg lettuce
4-5 green onions, chopped
3 medium tomatoes, cut into wedges, 6-8 per tomato
1 small green bell pepper, cored and roughly diced
1 cucumber, sliced (peeled or unpeeled as preferred; I do not peel mine)
1/2 of a 3.5-oz jar of non-pareil capers, drained (like Crosse & Blackwell - Click here for more info)
1 5-oz package crumbled blue or Gorgonzola cheese (like, Treasure Cave - Click here for more info)
4 tbsp green olives, chopped (or buy "salad olives" which are already chopped for you)
1 2-oz can of rolled or flat filets of anchovies, drained (like, King Oscar)

The Recipes
First, make the dressing:

Blend the vinegars. Add the sugar (or Splenda), mustard, fennel, lemon juice, parsley, salt, and pepper, and whisk together. Whisk in the oils until all is incorporated. Another method to to put all ingredients in a mason jar or other container with a tight fitting lid and shake the hell out of it. This dressing will taste better if you let it sit for at least an hour for the flavors to amalgomate. Overnight is better.

Then, assemble the salad:
Remove the outer leaves of the head of Iceberg lettuce and then remove the core. The easiest way to do this is to slam the root of the lettuce firmly on your countertop. The core will dislodge easily. Simply pull it out and discard. Then, tear the lettuce by hand into bite size pieces and drop into your salad bowl.

Add all the other ingredients except the tomatoes and anchovies and toss the salad well. Your hands are the best utensils for this.

Add the tomatoes and anchovies last, and then gently toss with a mixing fork and spoon, so you don't masticate them.

Add the dressing in a quantity to your liking, and gently toss again. Serve pretty quickly because the salt in the anchovies will begin to leach water from the vegetables almost immediately, and the salad will go limp on you. But to tell you the truth, leftover limp wop salad the next day ain't all that bad.

Sometimes I will add a pepperoncini on the side as a garnish, and to give it a bit more "wop authenticity."


  1. Another belief about the slur, "Wop" is that it comes from Ellis Island, meaning "without papers" applied to Italian immigrants. The salad is now mostly called an Italian salad or antipasto salad in New Orleans.

  2. It will always be wop salad to me! I love it!

  3. I believe that this is the closest thing to the Wop salad that I grew up eating in Galveston County. My dad made the very best according to everyone who tried it. About the only thing different is the celery (as you mentioned), but my dad also added avocado. I can almost do it as well as he can, but my sister is now the expert in our family.

  4. I always liked wop salad. It will go well with my niggerfried chicken and gook sauce