Olive Garden is debuting a hamburger because experts told the company that it was losing customers who possessed indomitable burger cravings. In an attempt to create a burger, the chain restaurant made one of its most daring moves in history: using arugula instead of iceberg lettuce. Olive Garden executives "were worried that arugula wouldn’t appeal to Olive Garden diners, most of whom are better acquainted with iceberg lettuce," Bloomberg reports. Further, Olive Garden head chef Jim Nuetzi explained to Bloomberg that executives there couldn't even imagine the taste of an Italian burger (meatballs and burgers aren't that disparate, are they?), and that introducing the arugula-ridden sandwich was fiercely debated.
While it may seem silly, this isn't the first time that the American fear of arugula has reared its ugly head. Part of that is due to its name and age. It kinda sounds like a grunt. It sounds foreign, so foreign in fact that in 1989 the AP wrote a sassy report explaining that arugula, radicchio, and cardoon were not in fact names of diseases or foreign words, but rather "designer vegetables." That was just 24 years ago. So it's still a relatively young green compared to its counterparts like romaine and iceberg.
In American culture, when you call something "designer" it often translates into being trendy, expensive or upper-crusty. Sometimes that translates into snooty (see: kale or quinoa). And well, that's not what American lettuces are supposed to be. Lettuces are supposed to be for the people and easy to pronounce. This air of snootiness even lent itself to the 2006 book The United States of Arugula by David Camp. That book was an explainer on American cuisine and taste, and how they have gone gourmet. Arugula and its snootiness became the touchstone which everyone could relate to.
Cindy Crawford, a well-loved beautiful person, even said that she uses arugula as a litmus test when it comes to where she lives and where she visits. It's apparently a pioneer plant of sorts. "Arugula is how I define my cities. I go to the grocery store, and either you can get arugula or you can't. And I really don't want to be anywhere you can't," she told Bazaar magazine way back in 1995. That's mad snobby.
Arugula has often served as a talking point for right-wing politicians who like to rail against the left not just because of its elite status, but also because of its healthiness and association to Michelle Obama. "Uppity? You don't think she's a little snotty? Really? Really? Miss Arugula? Come on!" Glenn Beck said in 2011. That works well into the current right-wing strategy of insinuating that real Americans are Republicans and real Republicans eat whatever they want even if it could kill them.
On top of all of this, arugula has had to battle its acquired taste. "Is it supposed to taste like a singed grandma?" people who eat arugula often ask. Okay, maybe there's a tiny bit of exaggeration there. But it's bitter and very peppery, and that's hard to grasp sometimes.
At the end of the day, though, this is a vegetable. And we're talking about the simple task of putting it in your mouth and chewing. This is not an insect, or mollusk, or as something complex as saving lives.
The solution to appease the palates of Olive Garden diners, as Nuetzi found out, was like what a lot of people do with the sometimes-troublesome green: smother it in fatty stuff until you can't taste it anymore. That includes throwing mozzarella, prosciutto, and aioli spread on it. "Nuetzi tweaked it after diners weighed in — doubling the aioli spread, slicing the tomatoes instead of dicing them into small pieces because they fell out of the bun and made a mess," Bloomberg reports.
Photo of arugula by: Shebeko via Shutterstock
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.