‘You’re the top, you’re a Waldorf Salad’: A post-Thanksgiving spin on a famous salad, and a brief history of where it originated
|Published: 11-28-2023 2:29 PM
In the days after an over-the-top Thanksgiving meal, I have been known to blanch at the idea (let alone the sight) of cream. I long for simple, light foods like salad. Unfortunately, there are often still leftovers in the house.
Happily, I can throw some turkey and cranberry sauce into a Waldorf Salad.
I love Waldorf Salad. I also love its birthplace, the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York — the chic art deco trim, the Bauman rare-book display in the lobby, Cole Porter’s piano (surely the classiest musical instrument in the world), the charming waiters and receptionists.
A 2018 article in “Smithsonian” magazine lightly chided the hotel for the “tone deaf displays of wealth” in its original location, given that the place opened when the country was entering a depression.
I still adore the Waldorf. The “new” location (the hotel moved uptown in 1929 to make way for the Empire State Building) is still full of glitz, and I like glitz.
My friend Chikako was married at the Waldorf many years ago. When she explained that, according to Japanese custom, school friends of the bride always sing at weddings, I crooned “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” with the band. It was the only song they and I both knew.
Ever since then I have dreamed of titling my autobiography “I Sang at the Waldorf.”
I also like the Waldorf’s long culinary history, particularly the legend of maîtred’hôtel Oscar Michel Tschirky, who worked at the hotel from its opening in 1893 until 1943.
The Swiss-born Oscar of the Waldorf, as he was called, created the Waldorf Salad, Veal Oscar, and possibly (according to some sources) Eggs Benedict. He also introduced Thousand-Island Dressing to a wider eatership.
He was known for his flair with food and with people. When asked for a testimonial to accompany his application at the Waldorf, he allegedly walked around Delmonico’s Restaurant (his previous workplace) asking his favorite customers to sign the glowing letter of recommendation he himself had written.
The signatures — from such luminaries as entertainer Lillian Russell, businessman/gourmand Diamond Jim Brady, and railroad executive George Jay Gould — did the trick, and Oscar Tschirky became Oscar of the Waldorf.
According to the Smithsonian article, “Oscar was the hotel’s public face, as essential to the atmosphere as the inlaid mahogany. New York had 1,368 millionaires; he learned their names. Such personal service, ever rare, became the hotel’s most valuable asset … His smile of recognition was currency: It meant that you belonged.”
Oscar Tschirky went on to serve every president from Grover Cleveland to Franklin Roosevelt and was awarded medals from foreign governments. When he died in 1950, the Waldorf flew its flags at half-staff.
A delightful 1931 profile by Edward Hungerford titled “Oscar the Epicure” enthused, “Whenever people, in America at least, speak of the art of eating, they invariably mention Oscar.”
Oscar believed in the craft of menu construction and amassed an extensive menu collection, which he left to Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration along with his personal papers. He also penned a cookbook featuring many of his signature recipes.
I could write a lot more about Oscar and the Waldorf, but I’m ready to return to the topic of my turkey — or rather Tschirky — salad.
A Waldorf Salad has many virtues. It’s a cinch to throw together. It uses fresh ingredients one has on hand much of the year. And it illustrates some of the properties that make those ingredients so wonderful.
Apples, celery, and walnuts are crunchy foods. It’s only when eating them together in a salad, however, that one realizes that they’re crunchy in different but complementary ways.
My post-Thanksgiving salad (also a great idea for Christmas) adds the softness of turkey and the rich red hue of cranberry sauce to this classic dish. I must admit that the color of the mixture startled me a bit when I first made it. It’s a bright mid-20th century shade of pink.
I choose to embrace that color, however. Oscar of the Waldorf had a flamboyant side. Why shouldn’t I?
To quote Cole Porter, “You’re the top, you’re a Waldorf Salad. You’re the top, you’re a Berlin ballad.”
1/4 cup mayonnaise (low-fat is fine, or you could emulate Oscar and make your own)
2 tablespoons whole-berry cranberry sauce plus a bit more later
the juice of 1/2 small lemon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 firm apple (I used a gala), cored but not peeled, cut into bite-size chunks
1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted for a few minutes in a small cast-iron pan (toss while doing this!) to release the oils
2 stalks celery, cut up
1/3 cup dried cranberries (you may use raisins, but the cranberries extend the holiday theme)
3/4 cup pieces of leftover turkey meat
lettuce as needed
In a bowl, combine the mayonnaise, the 2 tablespoons cranberry sauce, the salt, and half of the lemon juice.
Sprinkle the rest of the lemon juice on the apple pieces and toss gently. (This helps them resist discoloration.)
In a larger bowl, combine the apple pieces, most of the nuts (save out just a tablespoon or so), the celery, the cranberries and the turkey. Add the mayonnaise mixture and stir until everything turns a light pink.
Line a serving plate or bowl with a bed of lettuce, and place the salad on top.
Sprinkle the remaining nuts on the top, and put just a dab of additional cranberry sauce smack in the middle (because you need even more color!).
Serves 2 generously.
Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning cookbook author and singer known as the Diva of Deliciousness. Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.