The Myth of the Caesar Salad: A Case Study in Mexican Tourism

It started as a makeshift July 4th meal. It came from someone’s mother’s recipe from the Old World. It was stolen from a line cook. Julius Caesar invented it himself. Okay, maybe not that last one, but the origin of the Caesar salad is decidedly a recipe for cultural exchange and thrill. What we do know is that the now ubiquitous food first appeared on menus in Tijuana, México in the 1920s.

One story goes that Abelardo Cesare (Caesar) Cardini, an Italian immigrant, invented the salad at Caesar’s Hotel [Figure 1] - or maybe it was one of his cooks and fellow immigrant Livio Santini, who claims his mother used to make the dish back in Italy.i Another version also helps explain the source of another name for the dish – the Aviator’s salad. In this version, Cardini was entertaining a group of U.S. airmen on leave from San Diego’s Rockwell Field Air Base for July 4th when he ran out of ingredients in his kitchen. He whipped together some romaine, olive oil, eggs, Parmesan cheese, garlic, pepper, lemons, Worcestershire sauce, salt, powdered mustard, vinegar, and bread, and named the dish after his hungry customers. [1] When the dish’s popularity took off, he changed the name to Caesar salad, perhaps futilely trying to avoid confusion about the dish’s origin. Or, perhaps because alternate history argues that it was Cardini’s brother Alessandro who cooked for the airmen that day, Caesar wanted the credit for his own namesake. [2]

Caesar’s Hotel exists today as Caesar’s restaurant, and unsurprisingly, they support Caesar’s and the hotel’s claims to the dish. [3] Caesar’s daughter Rose supports the July 4th version but claims her dad invented the dish earlier, back when he operated a nearby Tijuana restaurant in 1924. [2]

Due to the popularity of the dish, it is no wonder that multiple people would claim credit for its creation. The way that the history of the Caesar salad has become a myth of its own says something about the time and place it came from, as does the man who – allegedly – invented it.

Caesar Cardini took a circuitous route south. He was born in Baveno, Italy in 1896. [4] When he emigrated from Italy aboard The Corsican, he was headed for Canada where he arrived in Quebec City in 1912. [5] [Figure 2] Ten years later, he had already made it to southern California. The city of Santa Ana registered Caesar’s 1924 marriage to Camille Stump, whose family moved to California from Illinois sometime before 1920. [6] Cardini’s arrival in Southern California was probably well before his marriage, as by this time, he had already worked in both Sacramento and San Francisco and was operating a restaurant across the border in México. Their daughter Rosina (Rosa) was born in San Diego in 1928 and the family moved to Los Angeles by 1940 where Caesar remained until his death of a brain hemorrhage in 1956, aged 60. [7]

Cardini was one of more than 90,000 Italian-born migrants to California in the 1920s, but Cardini’s take on the “American Dream” is colored by broader trends in the development of the U.S.-México borderlands of the time period. [8]

Southern California in the early twentieth century was an area of hot spots – Los Angeles and San Diego, namely – built up by the capital and power brokering of local businessmen who sought to create a prosperous white haven in the West. How much Cardini would have agreed with local boosters’ agenda against a non-white underclass is unclear, but Cardini’s story of entrepreneurialism looks like a small-scale version of the empire-building that California’s business elite carried out at the time.

Critical to the image of the west, and Los Angeles specifically, as a destination for upper-middle-class white migrants was a continual attack on “vice.” Vice – drinking, gambling, partying, sex, or whatever ran contrary to mores of the time – was either relegated to non-white sections of the city or driven out of the city limits altogether. Leading up to and through the Prohibition era, the same businessmen promoting southern California’s image and development profited off the vice racket by operating their own gaming dens and saloons just across the border in Tijuana, México.

The leading resort of the era was Agua Caliente (1928-1935), a place where Hollywood stars and even Washington’s elite could vacation in the México sun and indulge in gambling, drinking, and horse racing without reproach. Agua Caliente made kings out of its operators in its heyday and stands out as the most infamous example of white, American capital fueling the tourism and vice industry in Tijuana.

However, just nearby in downtown Tijuana’s Avenida Revolución, Caesar Cardini operated two different businesses of his own. After working at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco and operating Brown’s Restaurant in Sacramento, he opened a restaurant on Second Street in Tijuana in the early 1920s before Caesar’s Hotel opened. A 1919 advertisement for Brown’s in The Sacramento Union boasts a combination of quality food and musical nightlife, and it stands to reason that this environment would have suited Tijuana’s downtown scene as well. [9] [Figure 3]

Americans crossed the border to escape Prohibition and confining social expectations. The acts outlawed by moralists in the U.S., including the 18th Amendment’s Prohibition or local ordinances against dancing and impropriety, did not end. They just relocated, and for southern Californians, the party simply moved into México. In Tijuana, an industry sprang up to meet this need. There was Agua Caliente just outside of town, but there were also boxing rings, the Ballena saloon’s 215-foot-long bar, the Moulin Rouge brothel, and of course a myriad of restaurants, including Caesar Cardini’s establishments and that of his brother, Alex. [10] Historian Eric Schantz refers to places like Tijuana, which received economic growth due to vice tourism in California’s border zone, the “pleasure periphery.” [11] For Cardini’s part, he turned Caesar’s Hotel into an enticing venue to enjoy the local sights and sounds – a 1932 article in The National City News advertises an annual picnic at the hotel featuring “fine Mexican music” and “Jose Arratia, famous México City tenor.” [12] In line with tastes of the time, Cardini even used his restaurant wealth to help sponsor a $7,000 purse for the Coronado Riding Club’s 1931 horse show. [13]

Cardini’s businesses entertained this clientele and even some of the big names that would have been familiar at Agua Caliente. Julia Child dined at Cardini’s with her family in the mid-1920's, where the man himself prepared their salad tableside. [1] Whether Cardini’s growing reputation was due to the popularity of the Caesar salad or if the salad’s popularity was due to the clientele is a classic “the chicken or the egg” exercise.

Also like other “local” businessmen, Cardini operated in Tijuana but by all accounts, lived full-time in the U.S. The Cardinis are listed at the same address in San Diego through the 1940 Census and then in Los Angeles thereafter. U.S. capital flowed south into Tijuana (and, historians such as Paul Vanderwood and Dina Berger agree, into the greased palms of many Mexican government officials and infrastructure projects) and Tijuana’s profits flowed back north into U.S. bank accounts. Cardini was no exception.

Cardini’s business ventures in Tijuana occupy an interesting moment in the history of México’s tourism industry. In contrast to other future tourism zones in México, Tijuana’s initial attraction was not archaeological ruins or sun-kissed beaches. Vice brought Americans to Tijuana, and that reputation was hard for the city to shake, even as tourism expanded deeper into the country’s interior, took on a new face, nationalized, and diversified.

While Tijuana was a day trip for most Americans, safety concerns and a lack of infrastructure prevented tourists from venturing much further on longer excursions. But just as government agreements helped turn vice dollars into public works in Tijuana, México’s national government began to see the potential in commodifying tourism on a large scale. Tourism offered an “invisible export.” [14] Sure, wide-eyed visitors were keen to try “authentic” Mexican food, listen to military bands, and explore ruins. But what México was really selling was a little piece of its culture; the tourism industry’s true product could not be packed up in any suitcase. Thus, expanding this sector offered a way for México to help balance its import/export scales and pay back foreign debt, prompting an increasingly coordinated push to grow tourism beginning in the 1930s. [14] The Pan-American Highway connected Laredo to México City in 1936, and from there, veins of interconnected roads and travel stops funneled visitors out to Acapulco and Veracruz. [14] By the 1950s, new highway systems and an influx of tourists also turned local cuisines tied to specific Mexican villages into niche restaurant fare meant to lure in tourist dollars – a concept not at all foreign for businessmen like Cardini 20 years prior. [15]

What initially drew visitors to Tijuana is not what sustained and expanded México’s broader tourism industry through the mid-twentieth century. The 19th Amendment was repealed in 1933, and perhaps México’s undercurrent of danger was no longer as enticing as it was prohibitive for prospective tourists because businessmen in both México and the U.S. coalesced to conduct a rebranding on México’s behalf in the 1930s. They sought to change Americans’ impression that vacationing in México was dangerous or that the country lacked proper accommodations, advertising improved highway systems, new resorts, archaeological finds, cuisine, and more. [14] Tijuana’s Avenida did not contribute much to the campaign to clean up México’s image. Today, Tijuana is the fourth-most visited city in México, outranked by Cancún, México City, and Guadalajara. [16] Tijuana is still a tourism destination, but México is just as if not more well-known for its historical, artistic, and nature destinations.

The shift began much earlier, and the rise of an organized Mexican tourism industry as a state-led invisible export goes back to the 1930s when Cardini was at the height of his success in Tijuana. We do not know exactly when Cardini decided to vary his portfolio or why, but it seemed to happen alongside the industry’s broader diversification, although in opposite geographic directions. By the 1950s, he was advertising a new Chef Cardini’s restaurant, this time in Glen Ellen in northern California. [17] Toward the end of his life, Cardini began packaging and shipping his Caesar salad dressing to supermarkets, including Moore’s Market in Palos Verdes, California. [18] A dish that began in a restaurant on the Avenida became a staple on menus across California and a dressing bottled on grocery store shelves. Cardini’s empire had moved north and commodified.

Cooperation between private business and public development democratized Mexican tourism while mass distribution democratized the Caesar salad. Today, Tijuana’s Avenida Revolución lives on, as does Caesar’s Hotel - though now owned and operated by an international corporation that still credits the Cardinis in the institution’s history. Today his dressing is packaged and sold under the brand name “Caesar Cardini’s” owned by the T. Marzetti Company. With so many parties vying for credit for the salad’s invention, it makes sense that varying histories would hone in on a purported restaurant opening day, hotel purchase year, or July 4th visit from a fortuitous patron. However, such narrow myths miss a bigger, more powerful story. An Italian immigrant arrived in Canada in 1912 as a waiter, and by the time of his premature death some 40 years later, he had operated half a dozen restaurants and hospitality ventures in two countries, served some of Hollywood’s brightest stars, and packaged a mass-produced product carrying his name. The Caesar salad is ubiquitous, yet its origin story has heretofore lacked the same notoriety. It has become another export of the Mexican tourism industry. Tangibly, the dish relies upon a billion-dollar romaine lettuce import-export industry linking the economies of the U.S. and México. [19] Intangibly, the story of the Caesar salad says something more about cultural commodification in tourist zones and the outsize influence of private businesspeople in developing an entire region and industry.