No, that’s not a typo. This article is about “West Indies Salad.”
Wait! Don’t leave! I promise we haven’t had a format change!
Believe it or not, this is a southern recipe. “West Indies Salad” is a regional favorite dish of the coastal lowlands, especially in Alabama. The dish is a success story of how a restaurateur can profit from an overabundance of ingredients when combined with a clever marketing strategy.
In 1947, Mobile, Alabama restaurateur Bill Bayley, combined his love for Cucumbers and Onions marinated in oil & vinegar, with the plentiful supply of blue crabs that make their home on Alabama’s beautiful gulf coast. Heralded in legend as the first man to batter and fry blue crab claws into the miniature drumstick-esque finger food that is sold coast-to-coast in the US today, Bayley needed more dishes to make use of the lump meat. The popular, if not cliche, mayo-based crab salad, and crab omelet (a transplanted staple of the Louisiana coast,) were sold by every self-respecting seafood shop in the low country. So Bayley combined the crab meat with cider vinegar, onion, oil and cold water, and named his concoction “West Indies Salad.” Evoking the idea, in the minds of his customers, of this dish’s root as a byproduct of the exotic West Indies.
Bayley’s customer’s were head-over-heels for it. They bought into the mindset with fervor, and made the dish as famous as its namesake. Soon, restaurants across the southeast were copying it, and cementing it into the culture. It ceased to be a proprietary dish, and became a staple.
Now, 63 years later, it’s still one of the most popular dishes at southern seafood shacks, and considered to be a measuring stick by which they are measured. Oddly enough, “West Indies Salad” is one of the few dishes in my travels that hasn’t been modified very much. It’s very rare that a dish survives this long without someone changing the ingredients, or adding to the base recipe. The simple salad, stays the same, spanning the generations. The only variable’s I’ve ever noticed is the occasional inclusion of lemon, the change in marinating time, or the modification of ingredient ratio (which usually does nothing more than making the dish a bit wetter or drier.)
West Indies Salad
1 small Vidalia onion, peeled and diced
1 lb. jumbo lump crabmeat (watch for shell pieces)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1⁄2 cup vegetable oil
6 tbsp. cider vinegar
1/2 cup of ice cold water
Mix all ingredients in a non-reactive bowl, and refrigerate.
To achieve the optimum combination of sweet, acidic, and aromatic flavors, the marinating process is a must. However, depending on how long you marinate, the flavor of the salad can be altered to suit your preference Two hours is the bare minimum. This minimizes the onion flavor while bringing the acidic bite of the vinegar out to counteract the crabs sweetness. Twelve hours mutes the vinegar slightly, while bringing the onion to the forefront. A full day marinade is the most balanced as far as the onion and vinegar go, but the crabs sweetness tends to get lost.
Serve cold, with saltine crackers, and a glass of sweet tea.