Innovation in the kitchen is an ancient tradition, and these two dishes by great Alabama cooks have earned a niche as local legends.
Baked grits are anything but homely at Highlands Bar and Grill.
With access to Alabama’s abundance of fresh fish, meats, cheese, vegetables and fruit, it’s no wonder Alabama chefs — from fine-dining trendsetter Chef Frank Stitt to down-home seafood legend Bill Bayley Sr. — have produced their fair share of culinary innovations over the years.
Birmingham-based Stitt, for example, has been at the forefront of innovation in menu selection and recipes during the past three decades, influencing chefs across Alabama and far beyond.
The James Beard Award winner developed a taste for fresh ingredients growing up in Cullman, enjoying his mother’s traditional Southern dishes with produce from his grandparent’s local farm. Stitt also was often exposed to fine-dining experiences when his family traveled.
But his enduring passion for food and wine was ignited in college after reading books by top food writers. Stitt then began working in kitchens with chefs, including the ground-breaking Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, where he became a devotee of the local food movement. Later he studied food preparation in France.
Stitt is well known for his emphasis on seasonal, fresh and locally grown ingredients used in dishes that are often a more gourmet spin on traditional Southern cooking. Interestingly, in some cases Stitt’s innovation comes in part from bringing back the old ways.
During the early days at his flagship restaurant, Highlands Bar and Grill, for example, Stitt developed his now-famous and influential “baked grits” appetizer recipe. The core of the recipe is grits of course — but not just any grits. He starts with stone-ground, organic yellow-corn grits, which are much more flavorful than the more commonly consumed “industrialized white grits,” Stitt points out.
“Prior to World War II, grits were produced at local mills, but then mass production came into play,” he says. “Thirty years ago when I was seeking out organic, stone-ground grits, they didn’t know what to think. Thanks to growing awareness, now it’s not so unusual.”
Stitt’s signature baked grits, served from a mold rather than simply piled on the plate, are enhanced with a spicy white wine and sherry sauce, topped with julienned slivers of ham and minced shallots and garnished with thyme leaves. “Your get the true Southern flavors with a bit more of a sophisticated presentation,” Stitt says.
While stone-ground grits still are not typically served in your average restaurant, Stitt believes you may see that within the next five to ten years. Whole wheat bread, for example, has become a common option throughout the restaurant industry, he notes.
Before they become grits, all grits start from corn made more nutritious by the “nixtamalization” process discovered in Mexico by the time of the Aztecs. An early product of the corn meal ground following nixtamalization was the tamale, which has become a favorite food in Alabama.
One of the latest innovations in the food industry, Stitt says, is a greater emphasis on vegetables. While fish or meat was traditionally the star of the entrée, now the vegetables more often are. “It’s something of a current trend to be more creative with the vegetables, whether they are blanched, raw or baked,” Stitts says. “Vegetables, with their wide variety, are offering and have the potential of offering a lot more pizazz to the meal.”
Mobile restaurateur Bill Bayley Jr.
But not all culinary innovations in Alabama have been of the fine-dining sort, of course. When Bill Bayley Sr. opened his fresh seafood restaurant on Dauphin Island Parkway on the outskirts of Mobile in 1947, restaurants of any ilk were a novelty. And none of them served West Indies Salad — now a staple of many seafood restaurants — because Bayley hadn’t introduced it yet.
“They told my Dad he was crazy for opening a restaurant 18 miles away,” says son Bill Bayley Jr., 20-year veteran of his own Theodore-based Bayley’s Restaurant and catering business featuring fresh, local seafood.
But the elder Bayley believed if the food was good enough, the customers would come. And they did. At the height of its popularity, the original Bayley’s Restaurant was expanded to seat more than 500 patrons in the main and side dining rooms.
One of the restaurant’s top attractions was the elder Bayley’s original recipe for West Indies Salad. Lump crabmeat was cured with vinegar (rather than cooked) in his recipe, which included ice water, cider vinegar, vegetable oil, finely chopped onions, salt and pepper. Back then the appetizer was made up fresh at the table to satisfy customers at the busy restaurant while they waited for their entrée, the younger Bayley says.
It didn’t take forever for the word about Bayley’s concoction to spread and for other restaurants to offer their own versions. The elder Bayley officially shared his recipe in 1964 in the Junior League of Mobile cookbook. “He shared it because that was just the way he was. If it had been me, I would have kept it a secret,” says the younger Bailey, now 71, with a chuckle.
Interestingly enough, Bayley’s West Indies Salad has a Latin American relative in ceviche, first created in Peru from fresh fish cured in citrus juice with seasonings including chili peppers.
The origin of Bayley’s West Indies Salad is a bit murky. The younger Bayley, who cleaned many a flounder as a young man, says his dad always enjoyed eating a dish of cucumbers, onions and vinegar chilled in ice water. “Maybe that was it,” the younger Bayley says.
There is also the story his mom told about his dad using lobster meat in a similar type salad when traveling in the Caribbean as a merchant seaman. “I was young and never thought to ask my dad how he came up with it,” the younger Bayley says.
The younger Bayley does remember his dad developing the fried crab claws that became another favorite appetizer at the restaurant and have been imitated by many others. “The owner of a local seafood house gave a bunch to my dad and asked him if he could come up with anything to do with them,” the younger Bayley says.
He and his wife continue to please customers with both fried crab claws and West Indies Salad. These days the tangy salad is made with crab claw meat, which is sweeter and less pricey, the younger Bayley says. “It feels good to carry on a family tradition,” he says. “But at 71 years old, I am getting to an age that if I could sell this building and/or the business I would.”
Kathy Hagood, Art Meripol and Elizabeth Gelineau are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Hagood and Meripol are based in Birmingham and Gelineau in Mobile.