Many families have oral recipes passed down generation by generation. But for Tempe artist Julio César Morales, those traditions include Caesar's Salad and a family history that credits his grandfather with helping to invent it. He and a hotel chef and Al Capone.
Morales’ grew up in Tijuana, Mexico, located just across the U.S.-Mexico border from San Diego. “My grandfather’s family was one of the first to move to Tijuana from Guadalajara,” Morales says. His name was Daniel Dueñas. He had a small jewelry shop for a time in an area anchored by Revolución Avenue.
The street was also home to Caesar’s Hotel, which catered to Hollywood celebrities during Prohibition, roughly from 1920 to 1933. But locals, including Morales’ grandfather, frequented the hotel as well.
According to a section of the website dedicated to the Caesar salad, the dish originated in 1927 at the hands of Caesar Cardini — then chef and owner of the hotel's in-house Caesar’s Restaurant.
The hotel website describes Cardini wanting to make dinner for some friends, and having to get creative due to limited ingredients on hand. Again, it was 1927.
"He then ran into the kitchen and used what was at hand," it reads. "He took a bowl and placed some lettuce made into small pieces to make them seem abundant and then prepared a dressing with all ingredients available."
Turns out, the Morales family lore varies from the official history shared by the hotel.
“Two Italian brothers moved after World War I to Tijuana and began the Caesar’s Hotel,” Morales says. “It’s a hotel where Al Capone, Mae West, and Jean Harlow would go partying and dancing.” This part tracks. Other celebrities also made the trek, including Charlie Chaplin, Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, and W.C. Fields. A very young Julia Child was even there with her family.
But the Morales family’s oral tradition says a trio of people took part in making that first Caesar salad in the hotel's restaurant kitchen one night, after an onslaught of tourists left the restaurant's food supplies running low.
Morales says his grandfather talked of making that first salad with Al Capone — yes, that Al Capone — and a fellow chef at the hotel restaurant, saying they each had a hand in putting together the ingredients. Despite the long association between Cardini and the famed salad, Dueñas' story places a female chef in the kitchen at that moment instead.
Of course, it's not uncommon for oral traditions to diverge from one another, or from official accounts, in food and other creative fields.
The hotel has since been renovated, and kept Caesar’s Salad on its menu. Yes, it's referred to as Caesar`s Salad versus just a Caesar salad.
Morales first heard his grandfather's stories as a child, and continued to embrace them as he got older.
Morales moved to San Francisco during the 1990s for graduate school, but traveled back to Tijuana to visit his grandfather, who gave him a handwritten recipe for the salad. He's made several trips to the hotel restaurant through the years. Today, Morales enjoys making the salad for family and friends, using a volcanic rock mortar and pestle that “gives it something special.”
It's one of Morales' many creative pursuits, along with making art in various media that explores life in the border region. Morales serves as curator for ASU Art Museum, and his artwork is currently on view at Phoenix Art Museum.
He won’t disclose the entire recipe, although he says he has shared it with some friends. Like most recipes, it includes both the ingredients and the ideal progression for putting them together.
But, Morales listed the ingredients as part of an art project called Sin Mayonesa, which was subtitled "The original Caesar’s Salad (without mayonnaise)." Morales highlighted the salad’s Tijuana roots, and his family connections to them. It was shown at California College for the Arts in San Francisco, in about 2006, he recalls.
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His list features more than a dozen ingredients — anchovy filets, cloves of garlic, green olives, artichoke hearts, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt, black pepper, garlic oil, eggs, slices of bread, Parmesan cheese, and romaine lettuce.
The eggs get coddled in hot water for a few seconds before they go in, Morales says. Other ingredients get finely minced. “The lime juice makes it bright, but the salad has a little kick.”
The hotel originally used whole romaine leaves, rather than cutting or tearing the lettuce into bite-size pieces. That happened later, when European hotel guests took Caesar’s Salad back home, eager to eat it with a fork instead of treating it like finger food, according to food lore surrounding the salad's evolution.
Over time, the salad has evolved across multiple cultures. Morales can readily rattle off examples from Scottish to Jamaican versions of the dish. Morales prefers the recipe handed down by his grandfather, even as he recognizes the ways family lore is often at odds with traditional accounts. "It's a lot like trying to figure out who invented the margarita," Morales says.