Dear Matthew Alice: When and why did croutons suddenly go giant size? They used to get moist from the salad dressing and blend right in. These "gourmet” monsters are so big you forget you're eating a salad and you think you're eating a piece of dry toast. Try to cut them and they fly across the room like shrapnel. When you eat them, you sound like a horse eating an apple. Ugh! — Roy, Rancho Bernardo
The otherwise humble crouton certainly has mutated from dainty salad amendment to formidable goat-choker. Up to now, cynics around the Alice dinner table had tossed today’s ballooning crouton into the cultural bin reserved for the likes of boob jobs and the Fox network — why settle for moderation when, for a few cents more, we can wallow in excess?
But since the question’s been asked, I guess we have to take it seriously for the moment. To that end, I dialed up Mrs. Cubbison at her Montebello headquarters, a 50-year-old empire built on health food and Melba toast. Sophie Cubbison’s gone to that big proofing oven in the sky, but one of her staff was only too happy to talk cube roots, if you will. Once upon a time, all croutons were tiny, pale, uniform, regimented dice. Some plain, some garlic-flavored. Mostly boring, the industry decided. Mrs. Cubbison’s takes credit for livening up the marketplace about five years ago with the first “restaurant-style” product, the adobe bricks of which Roy now complains. In their effort to devise a snazzier offering, the Cubbison’s brain trust deputized squads of salad inspectors to snoop through the romaine and watercress in posh eateries. What they found were homemade croutons actually cut by human hands from loaves of leftover bread. They were not regimented, not uniform in shape, some had little bits of crust showing, all were BIG. The shy, retiring crouton had suddenly become a featured player in the contemporary salad. Mrs. Cubbison’s took a chance and marketed two reconfigured, husky, nonlinear “restaurant-style” products (ranch flavor and picante), and we, the sensation-starved public, ate them up. Off the shelf went the rest of Cubbison’s demure dice, replaced by the new, the now, the happening CROUTON!, currently the industry standard, both wholesale and retail (though Pepperidge Farm, I believe, still offers a small size in addition to their new “homestyle” patio pavers).
So, Roy, I suppose you can chalk it up to the inexorable march of what passes for progress these days. Though I can’t help thinking that if we’d all just taken the initiative to jettison those “gourmet” domino tiles when they first appeared on our overpriced restaurant salads — sent them back to the kitchen like a cold steak or bad wine — we might not be in this fix today.