Tuesday, April 8, 2008


I got tickled last week when a customer asked if we could substitute a mixed baby green salad for the mesclun salad that accompanied her lunch entrée. No problem, the server reassured her, for unfortunately mesclun and baby greens are synonymous, at least at this time of year in this country. And that is a sad state of affairs. [Note to self: stop using the term mesclun on menus.]

If I recall correctly from those years of studying Old French and its precursor languages, the term mesclun comes from the south of France (from Langue d'Oc [Occitan] mescla from Old Occitan mesclar from Latin misculare) meaning mix. You'll note the similarity to the Latin in the modern Italian word for mesclun: misticanza.

In years past, mesclun referred to a mix of baby salad greens harvested in the wild, a mix with a lot of character and interesting, often bitter greens. In recent years however, these greens have undergone refinement and cultivation even in France, and while the French mix is decidedly richer in bitter greens and interest than the American mix, both are generally less interesting than in years past. In the US in particular, mesclun has seen a real dumbing down.

True mesclun contains greens, herbs, and sometimes flowers that are highly perishable and perishability is not a good trait for greens that have to travel the breadth of the US and still have some shelf life. Moreover, the American palate generally does not warm to bitter greens, so the so-called commercial mesclun mixes are now largely mild lettuces.

This isn't all that bad because we now have access to much more interesting lettuce mixes all year long than we had fifteen years ago. So, if mesclun is dumber, lettuce has gotten smarter. And I think more producers are owning up to the truth: most cases of greens that I see are labeled Spring Mix.

The best way I know to have great mesclun is to grow your own. In the years before chefdom, I used to collect interesting seeds from everywhere I went and I would create my own mixes. Stored in the freezer, the seeds would germinate well for many years.

After the exchange with the customer last week, I really didn't think any more about mesclun until I went on my produce company's web site (I can't wait for local lettuce season!) last night to order some salad greens for today. There on my order sheet was Lettuce, Mesculin Mix.

The word mesculin struck me immediately as a typo. But in the business, we hear it frequently enough. It's a really dumb, long standing, late night produce order joke: "You got any mescaline?" Stupid cook humor.

I have my doubts that mesculin is a real word. In Googling about the web, I found a couple of references that state that mesculin is derived directly from the Latin root without the intervening Occitan transformation. (You don't believe everything you read on the web, do you?) But I never could find any substantiation of this, nor could I find mesculin in any dictionary including the OED. (But my OED doesn't contain mesclun either—Oxonians, next time you get to 'M', it's time.) If anyone can document that mesculin is a real word, post a comment.

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