Panzanella Is the Salad That Can Save Us From Diet Culture

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Panzanella Is the Salad That Can Save Us From Diet Culture

As a kid, I loved salads: the freshness, the crunch, the seemingly endless flavor combos. Salad was my favorite part of any meal, and it was even better if the salad itself was the meal. For years, my preferred fast food meal was one of those comically large salads covered in a layer of fried, breaded chicken strips. At one point, my mom had to stop making one of the pasta salads in our dinner repertoire because I would eat it until I literally got sick.

But somewhere along the way, I began to digest the message that I had received about salad again and again: Salad is a diet food. I would watch movies in which malnourished models would pick at their lifeless, wilted salads, stealing jealous glances at their friends’ burgers. I’d seen commercials where frowning suburban moms would push their salad to the side in favor of a chocolate diet shake. And I’d witnessed how, in my own life, the dieting women around me would always, always order the salad.

A food that I had, until that point, enjoyed more than most others, became a symbol of restriction, of lack. Ordering a salad was not a choice one made because they were actually craving crisp romaine or juicy, marinated tomatoes. Rather, it was a way to declare to the world, to yourself, that you had self-control in the face of more appealing foods.

I felt this way about salads for years, only eating them when I believed I’d had too much the day before. I shied away from oil-based dressings—after all, salads were strictly about nourishment, not about enjoyment. Why add liquid fat to something that’s supposed to be healthy? But then, one day, I had a salad that forever changed the way I looked at vegetables.

The bowl was filled to the brim with vibrant chopped tomatoes, delicate rings of red onion and little elegant leaves of basil. Oil and vinegar provided a generous dressing for the vegetables, which seemed to be nestled in the liquid. But the part of this salad that delighted me the most was the bread. Essentially half of the salad was just that: bread. Lightly toasted, glistening with flaky salt and absolutely doused in olive oil, the bread in this salad was undoubtedly the star of the show. It was panzanella, the Italian bread salad I never knew I needed until that moment.

That entire summer, I made panzanella after panzanella, starting with the tomato-based version I had enjoyed that first time to the blackberry and shallot panzanella I still make for friends on a regular basis. Panzanella allowed me to see salad in the way I’d seen it as a child: as a dish to be savored, healthy or not.

I truly believe that panzanella is an invaluable tool in the fight against diet culture. Panzanella spits in the face of the old carb/salad dichotomy: Carbs bad, salad good. It’s a salad that asks us to douse our stale bread in olive oil and indulge. In the face of sparse Sweetgreen salad culture, panzanella allows us the crispness, the freshness we want from a salad without making us sacrifice the most enjoyable part of the meal. And I’m arguing that it should be the backbone of a new salad culture in which crunch and delight are prized over calorie-counting and macros.

Yes, we should all be eating healthy food, but health shouldn’t be about restriction, or control, or about trying to make our bodies as small as possible. It should be about sustenance, pleasure and community. And if the only way you can get your veggies down is by piling them into a bowl with a bunch of bread and olive oil? Then panzanella it is.

Samantha Maxwell is a food writer and editor based in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @samseating.

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