We Have a Winner!
I recently entered the “Share Your Discovery Contest: Presented by Tava.” A food writing contest that highlights my single favorite food discovery in my city. I chose Mobile’s most cherished contribution to the culinary world, West Indies Salad. I was the runner-up to Choked Up With Happy Eating Tears and Adventures in Bentomaking. Below is my article:
West Indies Salad – Mobile, Alabama
Mobile, Alabama is one of the oldest cities in the new world but these days seems to languish in the shadow of nearby New Orleans. The irony of the situation is that the thing N’awlins is best known for, Mardi Gras, actually started in Alabama’s port city half a century before there was a City that Care Forgot. Members of Mobile’s oldest parading krewe, Cowbellion de Rankin, ventured west in the mid 1700’s to teach the folks in the newly established settlement on the Mississippi River how to celebrate Fat Tuesday. That’s not all the two cities share either. Gumbo? Mobile has it. Fried catfish? Mm hmm, that, too. Antebellum homes, spooky grave yards, and ancient oak tress draped in Spanish Moss? Check, check, and double check.
But Mobile can lay claim to something no one else on the Gulf Coast can . . . it is the birthplace of West Indies Salad. Never heard of it? That is a shame for it is one of the true delicacies of the new world easily on par with Beluga caviar or Kobe beef.
Bill Bayley was a big man usually seen chewing a cigar. As as chef, he traveled the world but in 1947 he and his wife, Ethyl, opened a little shanty south of Mobile in an area that now bears his name, Bayley’s Corner. Mr. Bayley often romanticized that he was inspired to create his signature offering after a lobster dish he encountered while traveling the West Indian island as a mariner. Presumably that dish was civiche, a recipe where seafood like lobster, fish, or shrimp is chemically cooked in the acid of fresh citrus juice.
Mr. Bayley’s recipe substitutes citrus juice with vinegar and employees only one protein, lump white crabmeat from Gulf blue crabs. The recipe’s brilliance lies in its simplicity – over night marinate the crabmeat with finely minced red onion in a solution of apple cider vinegar and ice water seasoned with only salt and pepper. The resulting decadence is equally at home as a luxurious garnish for a perfectly cooked fillet and a glass of fine Bordeaux or alone with a sleeve of saltines and a pitcher of sweet tea.
Mr. Bayley wasn’t done creating legendary recipes. In the 1960’s he was the first to dust crab claws with cornmeal then fry them up crisp and brown. Bayley’s restaurant is still open today and it still serves fresh caught Gulf seafood – Wednesday nights enjoy all-you-can-eat fish and grits, Thursdays all-you-can-eat fried shrimp. Bayley’s Restuant is located at 10805 Dauphin Island Pkwy. Theodore, AL. Call 251-973-1572 for directions.
Although fried crab claws are the better know culinary contribution, West Indies Salad remains the quintessential food of Mobile.
Stuart Reb Donald