The final whistle blew on the football game we were watching—or trying to—on TV. My dog dug his claws into my thigh, begging me to throw the ball just one more time, as my cat flew from couch to table to ottoman, deep into a bout of the zoomies. My fiancée, who had been talking on her phone, looked up to utter a dire warning: “My mother wants you to make a seven-layer salad for Thanksgiving dinner. She wants to compare recipes.”
For a moment, my heart sank. A duel with my future mother-in-law. Luckily for me, she had chosen a dish I’m well-versed in, and the practice would do me good, as I was planning the same dish for New Chris-Birth-Mas Year (a name I made up for the time of year that contains Christmas, New Years, and, most importantly, my birthday).
Seven-layer salad, possibly rooted in the American South, has become a staple of home-cooked Midwestern cuisine. Exact ingredients vary by household, but lettuce, cheese, bacon, peas, boiled eggs, and a sauce made of mayonnaise or sour cream are among the most referenced. I believe it was my grandmother who first introduced me to seven-layer salad, with its subtle sweetness and its contrast to the savory holiday meats that follow. She excluded the boiled eggs, as they clashed with the deviled eggs she also served.
When dementia afflicted my grandmother, we were forced to move her into a nursing home. It was a rough, few years for everyone, and the family seven-layer proved collateral damage. She had never written down her recipe, and the store-bought ones and my father’s homemade versions didn’t cut it. I found a recipe online that sounded nice and through the years made slight variations before settling on something I felt approached hers. It was important to keep the tradition alive.
Our upcoming wedding was very much on my mind. A recipe battle seemed a way of ceremoniously accepting my mother-in-law into my familial circle. Something she didn’t know: beneath my family’s propensity for humor and sarcasm lay an intense competitiveness. It would be my recipe versus hers, and I had every intention of winning this contest, whether our duel was real or imagined.
Although now common to Midwestern kitchens, there’s no standard recipe for seven-layer salad. Each family or community can have a different understanding of what a traditional version is. My family goes onion heavy, as most of us love the taste. In fact, we tell a family story: my late grandfather’s favorite snack—believe it or not—was crackers with butter and raw onions. My fiancée’s family, no lovers of strong onions, typically substitute shallots and celery. But the dressing, the glue that holds a seven-layer together, would be the best part of my salad.
Two days before the fateful battle, I set myself to work. I washed two heads of romaine and aimed to chop their leaves a half-inch thick, but I do not possess the best knife skills. I dropped the lettuce into an opaque bowl. To best display the layers, home cooks generally use a clear glass bowl, but I was assembling this at my parent’s house without my go-to tools. I shredded the carrots with their shredder, a mistake that made the bits of carrot far too fine, and then I sliced the onions.
Then came the sauce: a mixture of Kraft mayo, shredded parmesan, apple cider vinegar, sugar, and spices. I say this is a secret recipe, but I just wing the amounts to taste, until satisfied. The texture I look for is thicker than other salad dressings but looser than mayo on its own. It should be easy to spread into a solid layer; I don’t like mine too thick, and since my salad pan was opaque, I did not care about creating perfect layers. My family takes a “measure with your heart” stance on matters of cheese, so I tend to go a little crazy with the shredded cheddar. Lastly, the bacon. I like to make my own bits instead of using premade ones. I cook the bacon until crispy and then break it up with my hands or a knife.
The most important step: I cover the container with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator. I don’t know why letting it sit for at least twelve hours makes it taste better, but it does. My mother hypothesizes that the time allows the vegetables to release their moisture, which allows the salad to glue itself together and create the right consistency.
Supper time, two days later: the house was in chaos. Four dogs, three cats, and seven people lined up for their chance at snagging a plate. My seven-layer sat at the beginning of the line. My mother-in-law’s glass bowl showed off the clear, crisp striations of her salad. From bottom to top, hers included shredded iceberg lettuce, diced celery, water chestnuts, scallions, Miracle Whip, a sprinkle of sugar, peas, shredded cheddar, and Bacon Bits. Looking over, she conceded that my handmade bacon bits looked great. But you want the seven-layer salad to look slightly wet, and I noticed that mine, with its carrots cut too fine, appeared positively drenched.
But it all comes down to taste—doesn’t it? Most everyone at the table complimented the flavor of my sauce. Still, as this duel was largely made up in my head, no one actually declared a winner.
Seven-layer salad gets better with age. The flavor and texture deepens in the days following. Unfortunately, my salad didn’t last the night to see, but my future mother-in-law’s tasty version lasted well into the food comas that followed the next day.
For Thanksgiving, I’m happy with a draw, but for New Chris-Birth-Mas Year, I want to improve. I had cut the lettuce too large, the carrots too small. I wrote a list of notes to myself, ways to improve our little tradition. The point of cooking is to have fun, whether by enjoying the results with your family or by blowing a friendly competition out of proportion.
Here is the recipe. Keep in mind, I’m not so careful with the amounts of this and that. Like us, you’ll need to feel the measurements with your heart. Feel free to buy pre-shredded mixes. You are the head chef in your own kitchen, so trust your instincts and don't be afraid to make mistakes!
1 head iceberg lettuce or 2 heads romaine
1 small red onion
2 large carrots
½ bag frozen sweet peas
½ pound bacon
For the sauce:
1 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
¼ cup shredded parmesan (pre-shredded is fine, but no powder stuff—splurge for real cheese!)
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
Oregano, parsley, thyme, fennel, rosemary to taste
Prepare the salad the day before you plan to serve.
Wash and slice the lettuce into less than ½” slices (less than a centimeter) and add to the serving dish. A large clear bowl is classic, but anything should do.
Peel and wash carrots. Roughly shred the carrot and add a layer on top of the lettuce. Using the largest holes on your grater or julienning the carrot could work.
Thinly slice the onion in half-circles and add it to the salad. Red is often used as it has a nice amount of bite. I wouldn’t use a whole onion no matter what, but you can change the amount of onion to taste.
Fry the bacon until crispy. This can be done in multiple batches. Let drain on paper towels. Once cooled, break the bacon up into bits with your hands. Use a knife to cut any bigger pieces that stick together.
In another bowl, make the sauce. Mix together mayo, sugar, vinegar, and parmesan. If it’s too sweet for your taste, add more vinegar and parmesan. If the consistency is too thick, add more vinegar. If it’s too thin, add more parmesan or mayo. It should be bit thicker than ranch dressing. Add seasonings and taste to balance the flavor. You want it to taste rich and slightly sweet. Spread it across the entire top of the onion layer. You do not want to see any green from below.
Add half the bag (or to taste—the peas are the best part) of the frozen peas to the top of the salad. They will thaw by the time you serve. Layering the peas on top of the dressing can add a lot to the color of the salad and help keep the peas from getting lost in the leafy greens.
Next comes the cheddar. Around half a cup would suffice, but I truly measure with my heart on this one. You want most of the top to be covered.
Add the bacon bits. Much like the cheese, you want most of the top covered.
The last and most important step is to cover the salad with plastic wrap, a lid, or tin foil—as airtight as possible—and let the salad sit in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours. The longer, the better.
Serve straight from the fridge with a large spoon. My favorite part is sopping all the dressing that is left on my plate with a dinner roll.
This is a dish that is designed to go with extra meat and fun times with family. This duel was over Thanksgiving, but I made another bowl for Yule with my parents, and, despite having too much onion (only a little), it was delicious and went well with our chicken and wild rice soup.
Jonathan “LJ” Banse is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. They graduated from Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, with degrees in English and history and are currently attending George Mason University for a master’s in applied history.