I developed this concept while I was in my communications class at IPFW back in 2003. We had been talking about metaphors for America, especially the melting pot one. But I had told my group I wasn’t satisfied with that one, because it seemed to me that in a melting pot (like a fondue, for example), everything you put in was, obviously, melted together and turned into one mixture. But while that may have been the experience of many immigrants of the past, it no longer seemed to be the case. So we needed a new metaphor.
So I proposed the salad bar. With a salad bar, you have many choices. You start with the basic lettuce mixture, which is usually the largest container in the bar. Then there are many options, such as cheese, chopped eggs, green peppers, croutons–it just goes on and on. You can take as much, or as little as one wants of any or all of these options; or you can take none of them. You can even skip the lettuce altogether and just have, say, potato salad, chocolate pudding or something else entirely. Another thing about salad is that while there are many ingredients, and they are combined on one plate, they still retain their uniqueness. Because they are not cooked together, like in a soup, there is no homogenizing of taste. In each bite, you can still taste the cherry tomato or pineapple.
I believe this is a far better metaphor for the experience most people currently have in America. We have a sort of generic "American" culture–that’s like the large bowl of lettuce. Most people take this as the starting place: it contains things like having dinner at McDonalds, shopping at Wal-Mart, and doing turkey for Thanksgiving and Santa Claus for Christmas. These things are part of the "typical" American lifestyle. Then there are the options, like the sunflower seeds and shredded carrots: those would be like being Catholic or celebrating birthdays with a cake and candles. Some people opt out of the tossed salad altogether, and just go for the side dishes: they would be groups like the Amish; people outside of the mainstream.
All of these groups partake of the salad bar, because they are here in this country. If you live here, you’re going to be part of the salad bar experience; but how you make your salad is up to you. What you take is your choice. If you want to pack your plate full of mandarin orange slices and cherry tomatoes, or just cover a bowl of lettuce with ranch dressing is completely up to you. You can even make more than one trip, and have a different type of salad each time.
Since I originally proposed this idea, I’ve discovered that what I thought is hardly unique. I just think this shows how very apt it is.