Wilt sallet: Rediscovering a once-proud mountain tradition

By Tonia Moxley
The Roanoke Times
May 31, 2006

It’s a d— shame that every food good for the Appalachian soul is bad for the heart.

Creamy sausage gravy over buttery biscuits. Fried chicken. Buttermilk and cornbread. Chicken livers and onions cooked in butter. And wilt sallet.

I know that to those who didn’t grow up with it, wilt sallet (salad) sounds completely disgusting.

People who did grow up with it know it by many different names: scalded lettuce, wilted lettuce, killed lettuce, killed spinach, kilt sallet, wilt sallet.

And not every one of them liked to eat it. When she was little, Roanoke Times writer Donna Banks called this delicacy “snot lettuce.”

But I loved it, and still do.

It’s a spring dish, made with the first tender leaves of whatever greens are available, either wild or tame, and the first onions.

I remember my late stepmother, Pat, made it with garden-grown lettuce and spring onions and fat back. She’d cut the meat into thin strips and fry it slow, rendering out all the grease.

Donna’s mother dressed her greens with a roux of bacon grease, flour and vinegar.

There are no rules to this dish. It’s just something you do by instinct. To make the simplest version, you pour the hot fat over the lettuce and onions, toss, add salt and pepper and toss again.

Some people add apple cider vinegar. Some use sugar. Then it’s served, always with cornbread, and normally with pieces of the crispy meat on the side.

I don’t know this as a fact, but my hypothesis on the origins of wilt sallet goes something like this: After a winter of eating brown beans and home-canned vegetables, our pioneer forebears were probably dying to eat anything fresh, even if the wild greens available were jawtighteningly bitter.

To tame the bitter, there’s nothing better than hot grease. Yes, grease. Humans in their natural state, without the influence of Prevention magazine and Cooking Light, crave grease.

But now we have all this guilt. And fear. And some of it is well-founded.

We Southerners have a talent for making even the greenest foods deadly. It’s true, clogged arteries cripple many of us or carry us off before our natural time.

My popaw died of a heart attack. My granny had bypass surgery a few years back. My great-grandparents suffered similar fates.

Ron Holdren, a Newport farmer who sells produce at the Blacksburg Farmer’s Market, said he grew up on wilt sallet. In fact, his mama doesn’t know any other kind of salad.

When she says to get her a “mess of salad,” she means lettuce she can wilt with bacon grease, Holdren said. And in Southwest Virginia, the lettuce of choice is black seeded simpson.

Holdren rarely eats the dish since having a heart attack. “But sometimes I sneak a little in,” he said.

Despite its dangers, this is the food of our heritage, of hard times, of settlers eking out a livelihood in a hostile world. It’s the food your grandma put in front of you with a proud smile.

To pioneers trying to wrest (or steal) land from American Indians willing to fight back, a plate of oily greens probably didn’t seem like much of a risk.

But no more. As I make it, I find myself standing over the pan thinking “I really should be using olive oil.”

Olive oil may be “fattenin’,” as my granny says, but at least it’s good for your heart.

When I fry bacon for my greens, even my dogs seem both attracted and repulsed. The two collies circle me, their long noses pointed toward the pan as if to beg for a piece. But then they snort from the smoke and go stand by the front door.

I tried to find a little old lady to quote, somebody who still makes wilt sallet and fries fat back with pride.

But most that I talked to either didn’t make it anymore or said, “Oh lord, don’t put my name in the paper.”

It seems we all feel slightly guilty about our culinary past.

Graphic: Simple wilt sallet

-A “mess” of leaf lettuce (or other young green such as baby spinach or mustard)
-A small bunch of spring onions, white and green parts sliced
-Pan drippings from several slices of bacon, fat back or pork belly
-Salt and pepper to taste
-Optional ingredients: Sugar, vinegar, all-purpose flour

Toss the fresh greens and sliced onions in a heat-proof bowl, set aside. Fry the meat over medium heat until crisp. Remove meat from the pan and drain on paper towels. Continue heating the pan drippings, add salt and pepper and stir. At this point, a tablespoon or so of flour or vinegar or sugar (or all three) can be added to the drippings. Cook briefly. Pour the mixture over the greens and toss. Serve immediately with cornbread and the meat on the side. Fried potatoes go well with this dish.

– Tonia Moxley

Copyright The Roanoke Times 2006