Most of the recipes I post here on the blogness are things I cook all the time, that I love to eat, that are fairly quick and easy to make. This one is none of those things. I only cook it under dire duress; I loathe the very smell of the stuff; and the batch I just made took two solid hours to complete. But it was my darling mama’s specialty. She was famous in our huge extended family for it; she made it for every occasion; and there are people in the family, including my father, who absolutely adore it. I have cousins who would follow her from the car to the potluck table at family reunions just to be assured of getting a serving. Don’t ask me why; them that likes it loves it and them that doesn’t (like me and both my sisters) will never understand.
The first time I made it was the day of my grandfather’s funeral. Mama wasn’t able to tackle a two hour salad project by then, and I knew people would want it with the sacred ham that magically appears at every Southern wake. So after a long consult with Mama on the phone, I gathered the ingredients and spent the whole morning before the funeral making my first Layered Salad. I think it lasted on my grandmother’s table for about ten minutes.
Since then, Mama has passed away, and I have become the sole source (neither of my sisters nor none of my cousins is dumb enough to make it the first time and prove they can). And as much as I hate the stuff and as much as I hate making it, like most magnolias, ornery or not, I love my daddy very much. And I know carrying that big ol’ casserole dish full of cheesy/greeney/Duke’s mayonaisse-y goodness into reunions comforts him. So at least once a year, I break down and make it. And at least one person at every gathering follows him to the table and stands over it with a fork until the blessing is said to get the first bite.
So be warned. If this recipe intrigues you and you try it, most of your nearest and dearest will probably flee in horror. But at least one will bug you the rest of your life to make it again and again.
1 head of lettuce
1 large white onion, chopped
1 large bell pepper, chopped
1 can of LeSeur baby peas
4-5 boiled eggs, diced
1 pound of bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 medium-sized jar of Duke’s mayonnaise
1/3 cup of sugar
1/2 pound medium cheddar cheese, grated finely
This is how I put it together because I’m a crazy person. There are many shortcuts you could take along the way, but this is how Mama did it, so I do it this way, too. A note about layers – I’m sure Martha Stewart could make this in layers so perfectly neat and uniform that if you looked at the clear side of the dish, you could count each one. I’m sure the picture in whatever magazine Mama first found this ungodly dish looked just like that. Mine does not, and unless you want me to smack you, don’t tell me yours does, either.
Put the bacon in the oven in a shallow baking pan (spray it with cooking spray first and save yourself some heartache) and bake it at 400 degrees until it’s very crispy but not burned. While that’s cooking, boil the eggs and start chopping vegetables. I cut up the lettuce much smaller than I would for a regular tossed salad; a small julienne, almost a shred; line the bottom of a large rectangular casserole dish with the lettuce. The onion and bell pepper also need a small dice; when they’re diced, you can mix them together; they occupy a “layer” together. Sprinkle them as evenly as possible over the lettuce.
Now brace yourself; here’s where the smell factor starts to kick in. Drain your can of peas and spread them over the salad. Nope, not kidding. Every time I make this, I always make a little separate bowl with no peas for my brother-in-law who loves everything else about it but hates peas. Everybody else who likes it say the peas are key. I leave you to judge for yourself.
Dice the eggs, also finely, and sprinkle them over the salad, again as evenly as possible. Crumble the bacon over the eggs.
Here comes the tricky part – and the part that will make anyone not familiar with the unholy methodology of Southern cuisine shriek in horror. (Just remember, we call anything with mayo a salad, whether it cures you or kills you.) Dump the entire jar of Duke’s in a bowl. Add the sugar. Stir together until the sugar is mostly dissolved and the resulting slop is a soft yellow color. Call this dressing with as little irony as you can manage. Frost the top of your salad with it. Spread it all over it, corner to corner. It takes some work, and it won’t be pretty, but you can do it. You’re basically using the dressing to seal the top.
Grate cheese over the top, covering completely so none of the dressing shows. You could certainly use pre-grated cheese, but it won’t have the same texture – as soon as cheese is grated, it starts to dry out. Do it fresh, and your salad will hold together in a way that warms the heart of those who love it and defies all laws of physics.
Chill overnight if you can, though I’ve grated cheese in my slip and hot rollers many times five minutes before walking out the door.
If anybody tries this out, please let me know – I want to know how it comes out.