Editor's note: Occasionally what looks at first glance to be a conventional guidebook transcends the genre in surprising ways. John T. Edge's Southern Belly is just such a read. Yes, you can use it like the discerning guide to eating in the South it most assuredly is. But Southern Belly is also a book filled with so much heart, soul, and good writing that it demands to be read cover to cover like some John Grisham page-turner. Edge blessedly doesn't shy away from discussions of race and class, and the result is a narrative that's compellingly thoughtful and real. That's why I'm pleased that John T. has allowed us to excerpt selected items from Southern Belly in our Eating Out section here Serious Eats. They'll appear every other week. So without further ado, here's the first of them. Ed Levine
By John T. Edge | BILL BAYLEY was a big man. Big size. Big ideas. Said he was the inventor of West Indies salad, a layered assemblage of onions and crabmeat, cooled in an ice-water bath, beloved by coastal folk. Said he was the first man to batter and fry crab claws, too. During Bayley's lifetime, few people took issue with his claims to fame. I'm not inclined to argue, either, for if you go looking for good eats near the Alabama shore, you will find yourself on his trail.
Before he became a restaurateur, Bayley worked first as a steward, later as a chef for a shipping company. In 1947, along with his wife, Ethyl, he opened a restaurant south of Mobile on what is now Dauphin Island Parkway. They started out small. He worked the kitchen; she worked the front. But talent bears fruit. What began as a one-room grocery was soon a grand dining hall.
Bayley was Falstaffian, a cigar-chomping man of great appetites. He was a showman who, in a bid to lure families with children, rented projectors from the local library and showed Westerns and cartoon shorts. At his core, however, he was a cook, expert at frying chicken and all manner of fish.
Family and friends tell a number of stories about how he came to assemble West Indies salad, his trademark dish. Bayley often told reporters that he dreamed it up when he bought a tow sack of lobsters, while sailing the West Indies. But his son, Bill Jr., opts for a more direct, less romantic explanation. "He loved cucumbers and onions in vinegar and oil, and he always put ice water in it," Bill Jr. told a newspaper reporter. "I guess that's how he came up with it."
Fried crab claws came later, say the early 1960s. After years of busting open crabs, pulling the sweet meat from the shell and claws for West Indies salads, the elder Bayley devised a better way to crack a claw. The result was a drumstick-shaped edible, with a thin crab pincer (the handle) at one end and a fat ball of crab (the treat) at the other. Rolled in meal or cracker crumbs and fried, the meaty end of the drumstick proved the ideal appetizer, especially when dipped in a lemony cocktail sauce.
Bill Bayley died a while back. In succeeding years, fried crab claws, like West Indies salad, have spread far and wide. But south of Mobile, at what locals still call Bayley's Corner, it's possible to taste these dishesalong with stuffed shrimp and crab omelets and homemade onion ringsin situ, in what was once a catering kitchen for the elder Bayley's restaurant and is now a porcelain blockbedecked roadhouse, under the direction of his son.
Address: 10805 Dauphin Island Parkway, Theodore AL 36582 (map)