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This July 4 marks 100 years since Caesar salad was invented in Tijuana

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Caesar salad is 100 years old today. NPR's Neda Ulaby brings us the noble Caesar's history.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In the kitchen of an uptown restaurant in New Orleans, a chef in black T-shirt and jeans is prepping a grilled Caesar salad.

NATHANIAL ZIMET: We take a heart of romaine, and we cut the very top off, which is the very leafy, dark green.

ULABY: Here at the restaurant Boucherie, chef Nathanial Zimet says Caesars are a staple.

ZIMET: We have a grill on. We have lettuce. We have parmesan.

ULABY: Cooking lettuce, he admits, is not traditional, but he thinks Caesar salad is improved by searing the romaine.

ZIMET: It's almost like it locks in the crunch of it. And is it cold? No. Is it hot? No. Is it charred? Absolutely.

ULABY: Not many foods could be traced back to a specific date in history.

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ULABY: But in 1924, the Caesar salad was born at a popular Italian restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico.

JEFFREY PILCHER: This is an Italian salad.

ULABY: Culinary historian Jeffrey Pilcher studies Mexican foodways. In 1924, he says, Tijuana was a bustling border town popular with tourists during prohibition. Mobsters and movie stars flocked to Tijuana's bullfights and nightclubs, where you could enjoy a perfectly legal cocktail and listen to 1924 dance music like this.

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ULABY: Pilcher says the city was cosmopolitan, built by Mexicans, Chinese, people from California and elsewhere.

PILCHER: Caesar Cardini, the inventor of the salad, was an Italian immigrant. And there were many Italian immigrants to Mexico, and they opened up restaurants.

ULABY: Cardini's restaurant was completely overwhelmed by holiday travelers on July 4, 1924. They gobbled up everything. As legend has it, someone there - maybe Cardini, maybe his brother - desperately threw together a few provisions on hand, olive oil, lettuce, parmesan, egg. The salad at Caesar's restaurant was a hit. It still is.

ZIMET: We have a little Worcestershire, a very small amount of lemon juice and Tabasco.

ULABY: Caesar salads today, like at the New Orleans restaurant Boucherie, often include anchovies. But you'll also find them with kale, bacon, kimchi - all kinds of trendy ingredients. And that's why the Caesar endures, says chef Nathanial Zimet. The salad is a showcase for innovation yet rooted in resourcefulness and kitchen creativity. The Caesar is a salad for today and maybe for always.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.