West Indies Salad

West Indies Salad: Courtesy Tie Dye Travels @ Blogspot

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.

11 thoughts on “West Indies Salad

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  2. But there is a mistake in the way this recipe is given.

    Having lived in Mobile for sixteen years and having served and been served this dish more times than I can count, even though the ingredients and proportions do not change, the success of the dish does for two reasons. (Older Mobilians always tells me that mine is the best because it tastes like they remember from Mr. Bayley, RIP.

    The two reasons:

    1. Marinating time, as noted above. (I usually make it in the morning and serve it as a first course in the evening.

    2. There should be layering on two levels, which the recipe above misses. To wit: a) Put half the onions on the bottom, then all the the crabmeat, then the remaining onions. After adding salt and pepper, add the oil, vinegar, and ice(!) water, in that order. DO NOT COMBINE OR STIR until just before serving. And then, only lightly toss. I haven’t figured out why, but combining before marinating changes the flavor for the worse. In the instructions of the original recipe that Mr. Bayley gave to the Junior League of Mobile, the instructions are as I have noted here.

    A glorious dish!

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    • I’d probably toss out any leftovers. Crab in acidic solution for a long period of time would probably get quite unpalatable. Anyone else have experience with this?

  5. The West Indies name wasn’t a marketing ploy. Bayley was in the merchant marine and he got the idea for the dish from the ceviche he encountered down in the islands. True story, from a Mobilian.

  6. Leftovers are never a problem at our house. Whether using a single pound of lump crab or doubling the recipe for more people, we always finish off the last lump. Our family prefers a longer marinating time but it is a matter of personal taste.

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