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Robert St. John

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

West Indies Salad

October 23, 2006

West Indies Salad

One of the most popular crabmeat recipes in the Gulf Coast region is West Indies Salad.

West Indies Salad, a cold hors d’ oeuvre usually spooned onto crackers, is a simple combination of lump crabmeat, onion, vinegar, oil, salt, and pepper. The dish was invented by the late restaurateur, Bill Bayley of Mobile, who has also been credited with the invention of fried crab claws. Bayley owned and operated Bayley’s Restaurant in Mobile which opened in the late 1940s.

Bayley, a former merchant marine— and a figure straight out of central casting if Hollywood was looking for stereotypical Southern café owner of that era— short, rotund, and never without a cigar, invented the dish while serving as a ship steward. As the legend goes, while Bayley’s ship was docked in a faraway port, he purchased a sack of lobsters and returned to the ship where he boiled them and added ingredients that were available: Oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. A few years later, when he opened his Mobile restaurant, he remembered that dish, and since fresh lobster wasn’t available in Lower Alabama, he substituted crabmeat. The port where he originally purchased the lobsters was in the West Indies, hence the name, West Indies Salad.

That is the story according to some accounts. Another version states that Bayley always liked the oil and vinegar based onion-cucumber salad that is served in a lot of Southern seafood houses. He simply substituted crabmeat for cucumber and a legend was born.

I like the first version, and I’ll choose to believe that one. Some things just taste better when there’s an interesting story attached.

Whatever the origin, the salad put Bayley’s restaurant on the map and for years the cigar-chomping restaurateur was asked to serve his specialty from Mobile to Montgomery to Washington D.C. The restaurant closed for a period, but Bayley’s son, Bill Bayley Jr., reopened the historic establishment and has been doing great business ever since.

Last week I ate at Bayley’s restaurant. It’s a simple, but clean, porcelain-coated concrete block building on the Dauphin Island Parkway in a part of town called Bayley’s Corner. The original restaurant was located next door.

The West Indies Salad at Bayley’s is served by the pint (12.95) or by the quart (17.95) and arrives to the table in a large bowl to be shared, family style. My group of eight ordered a quart and had trouble eating all of it. It looked like a lot more than a quart and I have no idea how they are making any profit by serving that much crabmeat for that price.

There has been one change to the original recipe in that the dish was originally made with lump crabmeat. Today, Bayley uses claw meat— the darker, less attractive, less expensive alternative— instead of the all white crabmeat. Nevertheless, it tasted just like my mother’s West Indies Salad. She prepared hers from the “Jubilee” cookbook published by the Mobile Junior League.

Typically crabmeat, a delicate ingredient, is paired with similar delicate components. Not so with West Indies Salad. The crabmeat almost becomes a vessel to carry the onions and vinegar.

I was asked to speak on behalf of West Indies Salad at a recent Southern Foodways Symposium. I offered to bring a few gallons for all of the attendees to sample. Linda Nance, Purple Parrot Café Sous Chef, and I played around with Bayley’s original recipe trying to update and possibly upgrade the dish. His recipe calls for Wesson oil. We used all types of exotic and expensive olive oils and flavored oils. The results were good, but not necessarily an improvement on the original. Whereas the Bayley recipe called for cider vinegar, we also tried substituting boutique vinegars, to no avail. Ultimately we learned that if we wanted to serve West Indies Salad, we would need to follow the original recipe.

Bill Bayley’s West Indies Salad

1 lb. Fresh Lump Crabmeat
1 Medium Onion, chopped fine
4 oz. Wesson Oil
3 oz. Cider Vinegar
4 oz. Ice Water
Salt and Pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and gently toss. Refrigerate for several hours.

Crabmeat Martini

1/4 cup Red onion, small dice
1 lb Jumbo lump crabmeat (gently picked of all shell)
2/3 cup Lemon-flavored salad oil
2 Tbl Olive oil (not extra virgin)
1 1/2 tsp Absolut Citron Vodka (optional)
1/2 cup White balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup Ice cold water
1 teaspoon Salt
1 teaspoon Freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Hot Sauce
2 teaspoons Cilantro, chopped fine
2 teaspoons Parsley

In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients and gently toss with a rubber spatula. Be careful not to break up any of the lumps of crabmeat. Cover and store in refrigerator 12 hours (toss every hour or so) to let flavors marry. Gently turn over just before serving, as the lemon vinaigrette will separate.

Divide crabmeat mixture between 4 lettuce-lined martini glasses. Drizzle excess vinaigrette over the crabmeat to wet the lettuce. Garnish with a rosemary skewered olive for a light and cool first course or double the recipe and serve on a lettuce-lined plate for a luncheon salad.

Serve the leftovers in a decorative bowl on the coffee table to be spooned atop your favorite cracker.

Yield: 6 servings, appetizer
4 servings, salad

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