Pass the crackers (and the butter, and the slaw, and the comeback), please

Robert St. John

Appetizers are often the most interesting part of a restaurant menu. I could live in the appetizer section, alone, and often do. There are several reasons for this. Starters are easier to develop. Center of the plate proteins need more focus, they cost more, and the gross profit is greater so more care needs to be taken when adding entrees to a menu. Starters are smaller in scale and scope, so chefs tend to spend more creative time developing them.

There is a sub-category that comes before the first course or appetizers, they are the pre-starters. Mexican restaurants bring chips and salsa to the table early in the dining process, many Italian restaurants bring bread and olive oil, but those are unique beginnings devoted to a specific ethnic cuisine.

In Mississippi our pre-starters are often nothing more than crackers.

In the old-line Mississippi Gulf Coast seafood restaurants of my youth, there was always a plastic basket filled with crackers and butter pats on the table. It was as much a part of the table setting as the blue cloth napkins, silverware, salt, pepper, and hot sauce. I was there for the fried shrimp, but I would often get full on captain’s wafers and butter before the entrée was delivered.

In those days I wasn’t interested in appetizers unless it was a dozen raw oysters. I was probably 10-years old when my grandfather took me to Baricev’s in Biloxi to eat my first raw oyster— with a saltine cracker, of course.

To my thinking, saltines are the only cracker that should be eaten with raw oysters. Many fine dining places try to add a finer touch to the raw oyster platter by putting wafer-thin crisps or homemade crisps alongside the mollusks. But I am a saltine guy to the core. I load my cocktail sauce up with lemon juice and an obscene amount of horseradish and wash the oyster down with a crisp saltine. The crispness of that simple cracker is a perfect foil for the oyster.

I have purist friends who believe crackers don’t belong anywhere near an oyster. They dot a small amount of mignonette on the oyster and leave it at that. Some don’t add any condiment to the oyster and swallow it unadorned believing that is the only way to get a true taste and appreciation for the bivalve. I am OK with them being wrong.

I eat oysters the way my grandfather did, and probably his grandfather before him— with a saltine and horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce.

My go-to catfish house in my hometown of Hattiesburg, Mississippi is Rayner’s. They’ve been around for over 60 years on U.S. 49 just north of town. The catfish there is very good, the fries are homemade, and the hushpuppies are spot-on perfect. But where they truly knock it out of the park is in the coleslaw category. The coleslaw prepared in the Rayner’s kitchen is my favorite on the planet. It’s cut perfectly and just sweet enough to be a foil for the salty fish, but not so sweet that I believe I’m eating cabbage for dessert. Their slaw is brought to the table at the first of the meal, and I put a small forkful on a captain’s wafer and usually have to ask for another bowl of slaw. It’s probably the most redneck pre-starter one can eat, but they’ve been serving it since I was born, and I love it. I can make a meal out of nothing more than Rayner’s coleslaw and captain’s wafers— and have. The fish is good, and I order it to be polite, but I’m there for the slaw and crackers.

Coleslaw that is slightly sweet doesn’t pair well with regular saltines, but only with captain’s wafers. The wheat version of captain’s wafers are acceptable— and I will empty the basket of those first these days— but I don’t imagine there’s actually a grain of whole wheat that gets anywhere near the wheat version of a captain’s wafer in the cracker factory. They’re probably just colored brown and use a different enriched flour. But they have a little more depth in the flavor profile and are still as buttery as their non-wheat counterpart.

My favorite pre-starter would have to be saltines dipped in comeback sauce. New Orleans has Creole sauce, North Carolina has vinegar-based barbeque sauce, Texas has salsa, Tennessee has tomato-based barbeque sauce, Cleveland, Ohio has ketchup. Mississippi has comeback sauce. Sometimes spelled kumback or cumback.

Someone once described comeback sauce as, “The offspring of the incestuous marriage between Thousand Island dressing and remoulade sauce.” Actually, I think I may have been the one who described it that way, but just in case it was John Currence or John T. Edge and I have forgotten all these years later, I put quotation marks around the description. Anyway, however it’s described it’s most definitely the queen mother of all Mississippi condiments.

The versatility of comeback sauce is impressive. In this part of the world, it’s used as a salad dressing, a dip for fries or onion rings, a condiment for burgers, an accompaniment for fried mushrooms, and a dip for crudité. I prefer it as another in my stable of redneck pre-starter appetizers and like to start a meal by dipping saltines in a small ramekin of comeback. In this case, the saltine is the preferred cracker, but a captain’s wafer will do in a pinch. Just as with the other pre-starters described herein, I could probably make an entire meal out of dipping saltines in comeback sauce.

Appetizers might be the most interesting part of a menu, desserts might be the most creative, center-of-the-plate entrees might offer the most gross profit, but pre-starter cracker snacks are the most underrated.

Onward.

Comeback Sauce

1 cup mayonnaise

1/ 2 cup ketchup

1/ 2 cup chili sauce

1/ 2 cup cottonseed oil, or any neutral oil

1/ 2 cup yellow onion, grated

3 Tbl  Lemon juice

2 Tbl garlic, minced

1 Tbl paprika

1 Tbl water

1 Tbl Worcestershire

1 tsp pepper

1/ 2 tsp dry mustard

1 tsp salt

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and mix well.

Yield: 3 1/2 cups

(Robert St. John is a chef, restaurateur and cookbook author who lives in Hattiesburg, Miss.)


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