How do you know a recipe is good? When it shows up in one form or another on the menus of restaurants all over the Gulf Coast. So it is with shrimp po’ boys, oysters on the half shell and gumbo.
And now: West Indies Salad.
But unlike the aforementioned dishes, devout lovers of West Indies Salad are compelled to know how such a simple-yet-succulent recipe came to rest on their plates and palates. And more often than not, the answer comes as a surprise.
Like so many facets of Gulf Coast living, the famed crab dish has an exotic name and rustic roots. It was born in the 1950s at Bayley’s Steak House, a family restaurant on the road to Dauphin Island in south Alabama. It was in their corner steak joint that Bill and Ethel Bayley came up with the salad that would become a restaurant staple. The recipe had its roots in Bill’s days as a U.S. Merchant Marine. “My mother said he did it on a merchant ship with some lobster meat,” said Bill Bayley Jr., who carries on the family name and business to this day.
His father, a native Texan, substituted bounteous blue crab from nearby Heron Bay to go with the onion, vinegar and oil that make up West Indies Salad, though the exact measurements his parents used are still a mystery, according to Bill Jr. “My dad never measured it,” Bayley said. “He could take a pitcher of Wesson oil and a pitcher of vinegar and just pour.”
Sixty years ago, West Indies Salad wasn’t even on the menu at Bayley’s Steak House; you had to be special to get it. These days, it’s clearly marked on the menu at Bayley’s Seafood Restaurant—the modern incarnation of the family business, located at the same address on Dauphin Island Parkway. One thing that hasn’t changed is the crab, fresh from the nearby waters. “My restaurant is not going to have anything but fresh seafood,” Bayley said. “That’s what we’re known for in Alabama, and along the Gulf Coast … our fresh seafood.”
That freshness, along with its simple balance of flavors, is what makes West Indies Salad the perfect choice for meals served on fine china, as well as paper plates. It’s also why Bayley’s uses between 65 and 80 pounds of Alabama Gulf crabmeat a month, according to Bill Jr. And that’s not counting the restaurant’s crab claws, which are nearly as popular as its West Indies Salad. “Business is going good,” he said.
By MICHAEL DUMAS for ASMC