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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

Beautiful Swimmers

August 7, 2006

Beautiful Swimmers

When I was a child my family owned a small, rickety fish camp on the Pascagoula River near the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.

When the year’s final school bell rang, shorts were put on, shoes were kicked off, and the slow pace of summer kicked in. I spent those days fishing, trolling for shrimp, and water skiing.

In an era before catch-limits, we filled ice chests full of redfish— this, a full decade before Prudhomme blackened one in a skillet and started the national craze that created the subsequent redfish shortage. Other days we attached a small shrimp trolling-net to the back of our boat. We trolled slowly all afternoon, hauling in the net every hour or so and separating shrimp from the other sea life that had been netted. Most of the other species were tossed back into the water except for the occasional flounder or sheepshead. We then returned to the small camp and boiled the shrimp just minutes out of the water.

All summer we kept crab traps in the water. No matter where we were traveling on the river, or into the Gulf, we stopped on our way home to check the crab traps. The day’s crab catch was added to the ice chest and the crabs were boiled and picked that evening.

The refrigerator was always full of crabmeat, usually in the form of West Indies Salad. My mother loved West Indies Salad and was never too far from a Tupperware bowlful and a box of crackers.

West Indies Salad is a simple creation of crabmeat with a light vinaigrette dressing and is said to have been created by Bill Bailey, a Mobile restaurateur who operated a long-running establishment on the Dauphin Island Parkway. My mother used a recipe from the 1964 Mobile Junior League cookbook, Recipe Jubilee!.

As Labor Day drew nearer, afternoon showers became lighter, the days grew shorter, and the crabs traveled upriver with the brackish water. I can remember using hand nets to scoop crabs out of the shallows of the tiny beach near our swimming hole, always returning the sponge crabs (those bearing eggs) to the water. On some days, ice chests could be filled in mere minutes.

The generic and specific name for the Gulf Blue Crab is Callinectes sapidus, and according to the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources website, “Its generic name, Callinectes is a combination of two Latin words meaning ‘beautiful swimmer,’ while its specific name, sapidus, means ‘savory.’”

I have always loved the term “beautiful swimmer,” and though the Blue Crab’s swimming motion is more of a herky-jerky sideways scamper than a graceful and fluid movement worthy of the title beautiful swimmer, I think the name is befitting if only for the crustacean’s wonderful flavor, unmatched versatility, and culinary stature in the Gulf South.

The three most beautiful words in the Mississippi cooking lexis are: Jumbo Lump Crabmeat. The majority of my restaurant career has been filled using dishes featuring crabmeat. It is the first and foremost ingredient in my larder. One would have a hard time finding more than a dozen savory seafood dishes that couldn’t be improved substantially by the addition of crabmeat. It is sweet, and delicate, and versatile.

Since childhood I have associated the month of August with crabs. It is the most plentiful and economical month for purchasing crabmeat and, to this day, the abundance allows me and my chefs to focus on developing dishes featuring the Gulf’s most versatile delicacy. At the Crescent City Grill in Hattiesburg we use over 400 pounds of fresh crabmeat each week during the annual August crabmeat promotion. The slow and tedious effort of picking through the fragile lobes in search of stray shell or cartilage is worth every man hour of overtime.

My mother sold the fish camp 20 years ago. A few years after my son was born, I drove down to see if I might be able to buy the property back from its current owners. The old camp, the neighboring camps, and the entire area was in such a state of disrepair that I immediately lost the desire to return, and haven’t.

Today, summer is shorter and the pace is faster. My kids don’t have the luxury of a Memorial Day to Labor Day vacation as school now starts in the middle of August. Something seems wrong about a world that makes a kid sit in a hot classroom while there are so many beautiful swimmers to be caught.

West Indies Salad

2 lbs. Jumbo Lump crabmeat, picked of all shell
1 Medium Red Onion (chopped fine)
1 /2 cup Light Olive Oil
1 /2 cup Champagne Vinegar (or White Balsamic Vinegar)
1 Tbl. Parsley
1 tsp Hot Sauce
2 tsp. Worcestershire Sauce
Salt and Pepper to taste

Gently combine all ingredients and refrigerate for four hours or overnight.

Serve on sliced tomatoes, a bed of lettuce or as an appetizer with crackers.

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