Killed lettuce is given much of its distinct taste by well-heated vinegar-sugar dressing.
Call it lettuce with hot bacon vinaigrette dressing if you will. I prefer a description with more impact: killed.
The dish with the violent-sounding name is made at home, not usually ordered out. It’s a marriage of garden plot and barnyard – fresh spring lettuce and rendered pork fat. And it’s seasoned with long shelf-life staples – vinegar, sometimes sugar, salt, and pepper.
Some call it “kilt” lettuce. There’s no relation to the Scottish skirt. It’s just a dialectal variation. The dish is often listed in cookbook indices as “wilted lettuce,” but the term lacks verve and fails to stir childhood imaginations quite like “killed.”
Since lettuce and green onions are among the first plants to produce in the garden, a bowl of killed lettuce is a sign of spring’s arrival. For some, it’s a spring tonic. And it’s about the closest thing to a salad that many traditional mountain cooks will admit to.
Food writer Ronni Lundy, who grew up in Eastern Kentucky, says killed lettuce “stirs deep cravings in the heart.”
And for those who have made it, the explosive sound of vinegar hitting grease is unforgettable.
A can of grease on the back of the stove has been a common sight in mountain kitchens for generations. When bacon or streaked (two syllables) meat were fried, the grease was drained off into the pot and left there all the time, at room temperature, ready for chicken frying or lettuce killing.
In Pauline Harmon Smith’s Tazewell, Tenn., kitchen, diced, boiled eggs were a common addition to killed lettuce, with a side of hot fried cornbread.
Hattie Hill Brown, in Grand Junction, Tenn., tossed in some chopped garden tomatoes and served the hot dish with biscuits, butter, and sorghum syrup, topped off with sweet tea.
Sheri Castle grew up eating her grandmother Madge Reece Castle’s killed lettuce in Zionville, N.C. Castle is now a culinary instructor and food writer in Chapel Hill, and she uses her grandmother’s southern Appalachian killed lettuce recipe in her cooking classes.
“My family always ate killed lettuce with potatoes and cornbread,” says Castle. “However, they didn’t like for the vinegar to run all over the plate, so they always placed a spoon under the top back edge to create a little slope, so the vinegar stayed ponded at the bottom.”
What follows is an adaptation of Castle’s recipe. As a substitute for the green onions, consider a handful of freshly foraged ramps from the mountains.