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Over the years the New York Times has devoted a respectable amount of their time and energy toward covering the rise and fall of the chopped salad, the most evenly distributed and well-diced of healthy dishes. Today, however, the Times outdid itself with an in-depth look at contemporary chopped-salad culture. Chopped salad has gone the way of the gourmet cupcake—it's mainstream, with second-rate versions available around every corner. For chopped salads, rock bottom is Duane Reade:

It has come to this: chopped salad in a drugstore. It’s the final frontier for a lunchtime fad that started in the city’s fine-dining restaurants, spread to delis and cafes, and took a downward dip to fast casual restaurants like T.G.I. Friday’s, Quiznos and Arby’s. Subway recently announced that it would serve any of its six-inch subs as a chopped salad, minus the bread. In other words, New Yorkers can now get a chopped salad just about any place except a gasoline station.

Well, let's not dwell on where chopped salad ended up, but look at where we've been. Here's everything we've learned about these dicey meals from the Times.

Chopped Salads Address a Need You Didn't Know You Had

The best inventions may be the ones that address a need, but the second-best inventions are the ones that fix problems you aren't even aware of. Luke Kingma, who listed chickpeas, banana peppers and feta cheese as some of his favorite salad ingredients, is grateful for places like Just Salad for bringing salad to the masses. “It’s nice because it’s something you can’t do at home,” he said. “You’d have to buy so many ingredients it’s just not possible.” 

Even as far back as 1998, when chopped salad first started its comeback, it helped businessmen not look like hot messes. ''It's easy to look professional while eating a chopped salad,'' John Schenk, the chef at Clementine in Greenwich Village, told the Times. ''You don't have to worry about getting dressing across your chin.''The biggest benefit to chopped salad, of course, is choice:

“It’s about control, especially for millennials,” said Darren Tristano, an executive vice president of Technomic, a food-service consultancy and research company in Chicago. “They want the ability to customize and control what’s happening to the food that’s being prepared. They want it the way they want it.”

Because, of course, everything relates back to millennials somehow.

The World of Chopped Salad is Full of Infinite Possibilities

Oh, the choices you'll have! Even Duane Reade, the lowest of salad vendors, offers close to 40 options. And upscale saladers Chop't and Just Salad have more than 50. The Times estimates that you could "eat a different salad every day for the next century or so," with those numbers. That's enough to paralyze someone with fear. No, literally, "some customers stand hesitantly, paralyzed by the options and afraid to get in line," Grimes writes. 

But the Times actually has underestimated just how many different chopped salads you can enjoy over a lifetime. Actually, several lifetimes. If you choose five out of 40 toppings with each salad (Duane Reade has fewer, Chop't and Just Salad have more) you end up with 658,008 different salads. 

A Good Chopped Salad is a Rare and Precious Thing

Salads, even chopped salads, can be disappointing. A bad salad is like "a pile of rubble through which you must tediously plow with your fork," wrote Amanda Hesser in 2000, well before the chopped salad boom. In fact, in our diced-lettuce infancy she laid out exactly what a good chopped salad consisted of:

Based on chopped lettuce, it can include any number of ingredients, from peas to pancetta to capers. Each is chosen to add a dimension of flavor and is cut in sizes that allow it to remain distinguishable but let it blend with the other ingredients. Then, the whole is finished with a dressing that's thick enough for everything to cling loosely together. It is a composition with something to say, like a well-made sauce.

More important, an elegantly crafted chopped salad is a "kind of wistful tonic" and a "synthesis of seasonal flavors that transcends its parts." This is what control-freak millennials, businessmen and the Duane Reade lunch rush are looking for. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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