A Sublime Summer Salad

The darlings of summer all play well together in salad star Emily Nunn’s homage to the South’s bounty


For a brief period, everything that makes a Southern summer so delicious seems to peak at once. Peaches are heavy and sweet. Tomatoes crowd the kitchen counter. Blackberries and cucumbers seem to never stop growing. 

It’s almost too much, which is why Emily Nunn started tossing it all into a salad. A Virginia native who had lived in New York City and Chicago, Nunn recently moved to Atlanta after spending the past few years living the solitary writer’s life in a barn in Todd, North Carolina. She finished her memoir, The Comfort Food Diaries, which traced her journey of recovery from heartbreak, alcoholism, and the suicide of her closeted gay brother, and then created what has become one of the most popular paid food newsletters on the Substack platform, The Department of Salad.

Part of Nunn’s inspiration for the newsletter were the salads she began building almost every afternoon from the bounty of a North Carolina summer, a balm during the first year of the pandemic. “They were golden-hour salads,” she says. “Dishes full of everything that still felt good about the beautiful, wounded world we were living in.”

The combinations were inspired. Who would have thought berries, peaches, and tomatoes would go so well with avocado, basil, red onion, and radishes—sweet complementing spicy, and softness contrasting crunch. “I’d never really made salads that felt like they captured summer so aptly without regard for what you do and do not put together in a bowl,” she says. “It was like eating the earth.”

Re-creating the golden-hour salad requires as much intuition as recipe following. If cantaloupe or even muscadines are at their best, invite them to the party. The trick is to treat each component with care. Hand tear fresh mozzarella. Seek out a variety of tomatoes for a nice balance of color and acid. Then, follow Nunn’s salad-building architecture, which begins with a bed of soft herbs and textured lettuces. The idea is to end up with a more casual, inviting cousin to the classic composed salad. 

Although you can certainly assemble the ingredients on a large platter and serve the salad family style, Nunn likes to prepare individual servings in wide, shallow bowls. That way, each person gets a combination of all the goodies and can then add as much good olive oil and fresh lemon juice as he or she likes. Have a small dish of flaky sea salt on the table and encourage everyone to be generous with it. And don’t be shy about making a bowl just for yourself on a summer afternoon. Salad, Nunn says, can be healing. “I won’t lie to you,” she told readers in her debut newsletter. “I have been using salad as a drug. And it works.” 


  • Southern Golden-Hour Salad (Yield: 4 servings)

    • 4 to 6 handfuls of soft greens, such as butter lettuce, Little Gem lettuce, and arugula

    • 1 big handful of mixed fresh herbs, such as basil, mint, and parsley, torn

    • 1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded, quartered, and sliced

    • 2 big handfuls of big, juicy blackberries

    • 2 large ripe peaches, pitted and cut into chunks (peeling is personal preference)

    • 2 large ripe tomatoes or two handfuls of big cherry tomatoes, cut into chunks

    • 3 or 4 plums, cut into chunks (optional)

    • 2 avocados, cut in half, pitted, and sliced

    • A big handful of radishes, trimmed and sliced

    • 1 large fresh mozzarella ball, torn or cut into small pieces (more to taste)

    • 1/3 of a medium red onion, finely diced

    • Chopped chives, for garnish

    • Very good extra-virgin olive oil

    • 2 lemons, cut into wedges and seeded

    • Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon


  1. Toss together greens and about two-thirds of the herbs, then use them to line 4 shallow bowls. (You can also construct the salad in a large bowl or on a platter, but individual servings make it easier for each person to get a good mix and dress the salad to taste.) Arrange all remaining ingredients except the onion and herbs in separate little patches atop the greens. Sprinkle with the remaining herbs, diced onion, and chopped chives.

  2. Serve at the table with lemon wedges, a cruet of olive oil, and flaky sea salt, encouraging everyone to dress the salad with oil, lemon juice, and a generous amount of salt.

Meet the Chef: Emily Nunn


Galax, Virginia


Item she’d grab if the kitchen were burning down:

“I’d probably stand there so long trying to decide that I’d end up a pile of ashes. But the thing I’d probably be clutching when they found me is my Microplane.”

Best book about cooking that isn’t about cooking:

“Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness. It made me want to write about food. And I loved Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto: food as a balm for grief. And Heidi, with all the cheese.”



One food that says the South: 

“For me, as a Virginian, it’s spoon bread, followed by pimento cheese.”