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Lately I’ve been pondering over the merits of Waldorf Salad and it’s not due to me watching a certain episode of Fawlty Towers. Created at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1896 not by a chef but by the maître d’hôtel, Oscar Tschirky, the Waldorf salad became an instant taste bud triumph and is now classed as an iconic food.

When a Waldorf salad is prepared freshly and well it is delicious and I particularly like it when it includes candied walnuts, interestingly the original version of this salad contained only apples, celery and mayonnaise. Chopped walnuts later became an integral part of the dish and now mayonnaise tends to be replaced with more sophisticated dressings, but it is usually still served on a bed of lettuce.

So what got me lost in thought over Waldorf salad? Well, it was a journalist who was writing a piece on a competition in New York’s Waldorf hotel to find their next iconic dish, she  approached me as a food historian for my opinion on what makes an iconic dish.  The question of what makes an iconic food dish really made me think. After much deliberation and the eating of a Waldorf salad I concluded that all iconic dishes that stand the test of time tend to offer good taste, an element of novelty and their recipes tend to air on the side of simplicity. It sounds like an obvious observation, but the thing that all iconic dishes have in common is that they are moreish being delicious to the palette and having that slightly indulgent element to them that satisfies emotional and physiological appetites.  After all there is always a tendency to crave that indulgent treat that makes us feel better or little decadent morsel as a reward.

Interestingly, iconic foods tend to be of a higher calorific value because generally we enjoy the taste, texture and aroma of fattier foods. Our bodies are evolutionarily programmed to prefer fatty, high calorie foods, because they give us more energy for a longer period of time. Butter, oils and other fats are frequently used to add flavour to a variety of foods such as salads and sauces and the mayonnaise in the iconic Waldorf salad or Marie Rose sauce on a prawn cocktail are testimony to this.  Many people choose fatty foods as comfort foods when bored, stressed or unhappy and so when choosing a dish as a treat or emotional pick-me-up they tend to be rich in fat content giving the diner a sense of luxury and fulfilling our emotional craving for comfort food

In short I would say that Iconic dishes are really refined comfort food dishes that offer a little bit of ‘guilty pleasure’ without being heavy on the stomach.  Iconic dishes are easy to rustle up, a pleasure for taste buds and soothing and nourishing for the soul.  If all this wittering on about Waldorf Salad has left you hungry for more you can read  the article written by Leah Hysslop and my comments at