As for the eggs in my salad, they came courtesy of the 11 hens who peck around our yard, supplying eggs to my family and the neighbors. But if I had to buy eggs, I would opt for ones from free-range hens in cartons labeled “USDA Organic.” The chives in my salad were snipped from my backdoor herb garden, and as a gesture of home-state loyalty, I sweetened the dressing with maple syrup instead of sugar. I substituted Green Mountain Blue Cheese (one of the artisanal brands that have sprung up in this country wherever cows are milked) for imported Roquefort. Although the cows that produced it stay in the barn year-round, the supplemental income from the cheese business has allowed a 14-generation family farm to keep afloat during the recent crisis in dairy prices. I had to cheat on a few other ingredients. There was no watercress to be found, so I tossed in a little farmers’ market arugula to add a peppery touch. Sadly, Vermont grows neither lemons nor avocados, and a cobb salad without avocado is like the Brown Derby without its hat motif, so I bought organic ones from California.
My ethical cobb salad came with a few tradeoffs. I spent more than I would have liked on organic red wine vinegar and organic Dijon mustard. My pastured bacon was $9.19 a pound. (Hormel’s was going for $4.29.) On the other hand, local organic romaine was 80 cents cheaper per head than the California stuff, and the organic avocados I picked up at the co-op, to my surprise, were 50 cents less expensive than the conventional ones at a nearby supermarket. As I chopped those avocados, I was acutely aware of the distance they had traveled to reach my salad bowl, but hoped my efforts to source other ingredients locally would compensate for my avocado “sin.”
But what I lost in cost, I more than gained in flavor. The chicken was firm and clean-tasting; the bacon was fatty, crisp, and porky; the eggs were rich with deep yellow-orange yolks; and the lettuce crisp and crunchy.
The secret to making an ethical cobb salad, like the Layered Cobb Salad published in Gourmet in 2002, is simple: Use the very best-tasting ingredients you can lay your hands on—which means local, sustainable, organic, seasonal. Which, come to think of it, are a lot like the fixings Robert Cobb hauled out of that refrigerator nearly three-quarters of a century ago—before the dawn of industrial agriculture.
Barry Estabrook is the author of the newly published Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit and a longtime Gourmet magazine contributor.