Tales From the Crisper

Photo by Jessica CalkinsI stand before the salad dressing aisle at Pavilions, heavy with shame and folly—and a shopping basket full of leafy greens. I've come to select a salad dressing, yet even as I survey the fantastic array of colorful bottles and their unfathomable ingredients, I am again concluding that it's hopeless. Defeated, I close my eyes, shake my head and reach for something called Cilantro Pepita Caesar while mumbling anew the question that's never answered: Why the fuck can't I find a good salad dressing?

My refrigerator is a miniature of this Pavilions, except even more laden with doom. Bottles of dressing stand like pallbearers for the funeral down in the crisper, where another would-be salad has died. The lifeless veggies—some shriveled, others bleeding, all about to really start stinking—are a calamity. But in a way, the bottles of dressing have it worse. Their safety labels are broken, and crusts of yellowy, darkening gunk ring the bottoms of their caps. Guilt is eating them up—which is all that's left for them, since I'm not going to. Therein lies the tragedy: if they'd been better—any one of them—that salad might have lived. Instead, I think I went to Arby's.

My inability to find a good salad dressing goes back to my mother, who night after night covered a bowl of iceberg lettuce with a burnt-orange drizzle of Kraft's French. I just didn't know there were other kinds of dressing, and that revelation arrived as confusingly as puberty—and about the same time. This combination may explain why I married late, why my wife left me and why I'm again a bachelor. Well, that and all those years of smoking crack.

But it's not all Mom's fault. My own perfectionism, healthy concerns and snobbishness play a big part in my endless salad dressing search.

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I can't be satisfied with a dressing by a major manufacturer, be it a Thousand Island by Wishbone, that French by Kraft I grew up with, or even Paul Newman's Italian. That long aisle at Pavilions calls me with exotic possibilities, the very good chance that there's something a little bit better than mass-produced muck. Besides, after I look at their nutrition labels, I realize I'm basically putting gravy on my garden-fresh first course. I've become convinced that my salad dressing must be a statement—a definition of who I am, what I stand for, and how that translates into what I like on lettuce. (I think Joe Queenan mocked this baby-boomer syndrome in his 2001 book, Balsamic Dreams, but I don't know for sure—I've been putting off reading it until I find the right salad dressing.)

So what happens? I show up at the supermarket, gather a basket of produce, proceed to the aisle of perfectly arranged salad dressing bottles, begin to consider them . . . and do I only imagine that those bottles are the pipes of a huge calliope playing a mockingly sinister circus tune? Yeah, probably.

I buy one—maybe Creamy Goat Cheese & Sun-Dried Tomato—and take it home, pour it on my salad, take a bite . . . and do I only imagine that it tastes like some trash-eating barnyard animal emptied its filthy udders on a pile of rancid tomatoes? Nope, that's exactly what it tastes like.

But I can't throw it away. That addled sludge cost almost 5 bucks, I've only used a smidgen, and since I live alone, there's nobody else to eat it. So I slide it into my refrigerator, alongside Zary's Pomegranate Vinaigrette, Annie's Natural Goddess Dressing, Hawaii Classics' Maui Onion, and five different kinds of Ranch . . . and do I only coddle myself with fantasies that someone someday will show up in my kitchen to share a salad and fall in love with Creamy Goat Cheese & Sun-Dried Tomato? Yes, I'll admit, I do—but the more troubling question is the next one: Why would I let somebody like that in my house?

So this time, I've decided on Ranch dressing, whatever the hell that is. I mean, what is Ranch dressing—before it becomes Buttermilk Ranch or Serrano Ranch or Kraft's Light Done Right Three-Cheese Ranch or Wishbone's Just 2 Good Ranch with 2 grams of fat per serving? I'm talking about the original Ranch—and not Hidden Valley's Original Ranch with Bacon. What's that? I ask because I like Ranch dressing, but . . . not today.

Today I'm putting all this salad stuff back and going to Arby's.

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