A Classic French Salad
From a New Yorker Magazine Cartoonist
“My mother was a terrible cook,” says Johnson, laughing. “She cooked her first turkey with the plastic still on it. I dreamed about how nice it would be if only I could take a pill and never be hungry again, because I was just like, so sick of the awful food I had to eat.”
“She was raised in Ecuador to be a fancy lady, so she never learned how,” adds Johnson. Even after she married a successful but not fancy-rich classical recording engineer from Queens and had kids to feed.
“It was a major source of trauma for me,” says Johnson, who made it through by being nimble, reaching beyond what was on offer. “When my father would take us to McDonald’s, as a treat, my brothers would cheer—but I would just weep. And then I would sneak across the street, to Nathan’s, and get the clam chowder.”
Back then, Johnson didn’t see herself as an artist. She was a straight arrow who wanted to study literature at Stonybrook. Instead, she ended up at New York’s Parsons School of Design, because her father insisted she become something practical—you have artistic talent, you’ll be a commercial artist, he told her.
But life at Parsons led to modeling.
“I’d been made fun of for being ugly in junior high and high school, for having big lips and thick eyebrows. And there was a movement where they were picking people off the streets, you know, just regular-looking people. It went to my head for a moment: Now, I am a swan! And then some guy walked up to me on a job and asked, ‘Are you with the Ugly People Agency?’ And I was like: I'm not a swan.”
Johnson didn’t really enjoy modeling or the fashion world, but it paid the bills and it led to the kind of education she yearned for, sentimental and otherwise.
When a London modeling agency expressed “mild interest” in Johnson, she hopped on a plane with very few dollars, thinking that if they didn’t hire her she’d just stay until she ran out of money.
“The agency had absolutely no idea who I was when I showed up,” she says. But she stayed in Europe for 13 years, working and travelling, including five years of study toward a doctorate in medieval history.
Then one morning, while living in Paris, she woke up and realized she had something to say. “I was like, Now it's time to draw and write. I quit my job, moved back to New York, and started over from scratch.”
She didn’t become a New Yorker cartoonist overnight—it took her about three months to get one in the magazine—unless you’re judging by the standards of one of the many artists and humorists who’ve been trying for decades to get a single cartoon in the magazine. Johnson herself describes it as “a bit of an accident.”
Having never really read the magazine, she went in without the burden of intimidation many writers and artists feel when approaching The New Yorker. She didn’t even have a portfolio; her plan was to be “an illustrator of some sort.”
But a photographer friend on staff, who’d agreed to see her but had forgotten when she showed up, said: “Crawford’s around here somewhere. I'll get him to show you his portfolios. Meaning the late Michael Crawford, the great and much-loved cartoonist, illustrator, and painter, whom Johnson soon fell in love with.
“I was not interested in cartooning, but I was interested in him,’ she says. “He kept blowing me off, though, so finally I just said, I have some cartoons for you to look at. Then he called me back. He was always willing to talk to somebody about their cartoons.
“I was shocked that he was taking me seriously. But he liked them,” she says.
They soon became a couple and were together for 14 years, until Crawford’s too-early death, from cancer, in 2016
“I ended up becoming a cartoonist, discovering the New Yorker, and my life, through Michael’s encouragement,” says Johnson. “He was very proud of me.”
After she published her first New Yorker cartoon (you can see them here; and here is her Instagram), friends from high school contacted her, to remind her they had always loved the cartoons she’d drawn back then. “And my father said, I still have all your old cartoons!
“I had been a cartoonist all my life without even realizing it. Michael just sort of saw something.”
Despite all the terrible cooking, her mother did make one particular salad that Johnson laughingly credits with keeping her alive until she left home (“The only thing I liked was salad!”). It’s very similar to one she would later eat in cheap neighborhood restaurants while travelling in Spain. (And it’s almost exactly like one my own grandmother used to make, that I loved. I’ll give you that one midweek, along with a soup both of us happen to love to make).
But the salad below, Johnson says, was instrumental in getting Crawford to pay attention to her in the way she wanted him to, meaning romantically. It’s a simple French salad, since she had just come from Paris, la ville de l’amour.
*Recipe: Classic Salade de Chèvre Chaud (from Carolita Johnson, in her own words)
I keep it simple; this is the basic French salad I had at Parisian bistros.
Crottin-style goat cheese, small and hard, the kind that will melt in the toaster
2 slices of French baguette, about a half inch thick.
Classic French vinaigrette (1 part white wine vinegar, 3 parts olive oil, a bit of quality Dijon mustard—rough or smooth— salt and pepper)
Parmesan to shave into large thin flakes over the salad in moderation, mostly for looks.
Maldon or another flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, added last, so you can see it.
Pour or brush a little oil onto the slices of baguette. Optional, using a garlic press, squeeze some garlic into the oiled bread.
Cut your crottin de chevre in half to make two circles and place them on your slices of baguette. Depending on the size of your goat cheese, you may need to break it into more or thinner segments, and depending on your baguette size, you may use more than two slices.
Toast the baguette slices with the goat cheese in a toaster oven or under the broiler just long enough to melt the hard bits of the cheese into something slightly gooey, while also browning the edges of the baguette slices.
Dress your frisée with your vinaigrette, and place the toast with chevre on top. Shave your parmesan over it all, then sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper, and serve.
NB: feel free to add your own variations, but I don’t believe in carrots in salad! I might add some thinly mandolined watermelon radish (or fennel) on top of the frisée, or some nice sliced (steamed) beets on the side of the plate, drizzled with a little olive oil and sprinkled with fresh, chopped parsley, for color. Peaches are good, too, especially grilled. If you must have nuts, please make them pine nuts. I don’t believe in walnuts on my salad, either.
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