It’s no secret that I adore the cuisine of the Gulf Coast (otherwise, there probably wouldn’t be a Lemon Baby). I especially love our bountiful seafood. Despite growing up in New England, I had plenty of youthful exposure to Gulf seafood. Every summer I spent catching (and avoiding being pinched by) blue crabs on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes we’d boil them, and most often the sweet meat would be combined with just a few crushed Saltines, a smidgen of mayo, one egg, and pan fried– the best crabcake in existence, but that’s for another post. Often we’d let them go, happy to just know that we triumphed over their pincers (that time). Although I’m no stranger to the delicacy of blue crab, one Gulf Coast seafood dish that I discovered only after moving here as an adult is West Indies Salad.
West Indies Salad, despite being my favorite summer salad, is really not a salad in the traditional sense at all–it contains neither leafy greens nor a mayonnaise-bound protein. A mixture of crabmeat, onion, cider vinegar, salt, pepper, and ice water, its simplicity belies its greatness. West Indies Salad is attributed to Mr. Bill Bayley, Sr., the late owner of Bayley’s on Dauphin Island Parkway, which first opened its doors in 1947 (although it can be found on menus all over the area).
One August day several years ago, we caught so many blue crabs in the shallows of the Gulf that we boiled, picked them, and made this salad. We put every shred of meat in it that we picked, which would horrify the West Indies Salad purist. Traditionally, West Indies is only prepared with jumbo lump crabmeat, thus an expensive but completely-worth-it treat.
It was Mr. Bayley’s recipe that I had the pleasure of enjoying a couple of weeks ago when our friends Chris and Bria invited us over for a cocktail and a nibble. My husband has been known to go back for seconds, thirds, and fourths of this Gulf Coast dish, and I can’t blame him. It’s crabmeat at its very best.
Mr. Bayley’s West Indies Salad
- 1 med sweet white onion such as Vidalia, sliced first into wedges, then sliced as thinly as you can
- 1 pound jumbo lump blue crabmeat
- 4 ounces good-quality neutral-tasting vegetable oil I use Crisco Natural Blend Oil
- 3 oz apple cider vinegar
- 4 oz ice water as cold as you can get it
- sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Follow these directions to the letter! Spread half of the onion over the bottom of a large bowl.
Cover with all of the gently separated crab lumps. (Be careful not to break up the lumps too much.)
Add the remaining onion slivers, then top with sea salt and fresh pepper. (You’ll need less salt, and more pepper than you think.)
Mix the oil, vinegar, & water in a separate bowl; whisk rapidly until incorporated (the ice cold water will inhibit complete emulsification of the liquid); and pour over the crab & onion mixture.
Cover and marinate from 2 to 12 hours (the longer, the better).
Toss lightly, and check seasoning before serving. Serve cold as a salad over a bed of greens, on crackers as an entree, or – the Buckridge’s favorite – over slices of very ripe tomato.
This simple, yet delicious seafood salad is the quintessential regional dish of the Mobile Bay and Lower Alabama Gulf Coast area. Invented by the late Bill Bayley, a local area restaurateur, many years ago, it should be prepared exactly as directed w/ careful layering, and is best when using the very freshest lump crab available (jumbo lump, if available) and the coldest ice water you can find. (I usually fill a small bowl w/ ice & water, and then leave it in the refrigerator for several hours before preparing. Don’t take it out until ready to use it; then replace the prepared salad immediately into the fridge until ready to serve.)