All food is regional. Whether it is an entrée such as deep-dish pizza from Chicago, a lobster roll from Maine, or a plate of jambalaya from Louisiana. Soups are also regional – clam chowder, gumbo, cioppino, and Frogmore stew.
There are also many regional condiments in America. Vermont lays claim to maple syrup, and it has been my experience that true 100% pure Vermont maple syrup is worth every penny and hard to top. Maryland has Old Bay seasoning. Up there they use it in crab boil, and despite the plethora of Creole seasonings in this part of the world – including my own – I prefer Old Bay when I am cooking shrimp.
Dukes mayonnaise comes from South Carolina and is likely the main ingredient in Alabama’s contribution to the regional condiment world – white barbecue sauce. In Chicago sandwich shops, pickled cauliflower, celery, carrots, and spices are combined to create giardiniere which, to the Italian beef sandwich, is the same as olive salad to the New Orleans muffuletta. Ranch dressing, the ketchup of the 21st century, came from California.
Pennsylvania has apple butter. Washington, D.C., has mambo sauce, and in Hawaii they baste their grilled chicken with huli huli sauce, which is a mixture of pineapple juice, soy sauce, ginger, brown sugar, sesame oil, garlic and Worcestershire.
In Mississippi, the queen mother of all condiments is comeback sauce. We use it as an accompaniment to onion rings and fried dill pickles, and dress simple iceberg salads with it. Comeback is the offspring of the incestuous marriage of Thousand Island dressing and remoulade sauce. It is the bastard child of the Mississippi larder and it is awesome.
Comeback sauce is Greek in origin, but it is 100% Mississippi. The versatile condiment was born at the Greek-owned Rotisserie Restaurant in Jackson in the middle part of the previous century. From there it sprung up at all of the great Jackson institutions run by hardworking Greek immigrant families – The Mayflower, The Elite, Paul’s Westside, Crechale’s and Bill’s. It is typically served in a simple salad of iceberg lettuce, a sliced tomato and a few crumbles of feta cheese.
Malcolm White makes an excellent comeback sauce at Hal and Mal’s and there are several other restaurants in the Jackson area where comeback can be found. By the 1990s Mississippi’s house dressing had spread all across the state.
I added comeback sauce to the Crescent City Grill menu in the early 1990s. I tweaked a couple of the traditional versions that were printed in various Jackson cookbooks and have always been very happy with the results. It’s one of the most requested recipes in my email inbox and one of the most downloaded recipes on my website.
Last week I was having lunch with a friend at The Mayflower in downtown Jackson. It is the oldest surviving downtown Jackson restaurant, and almost the last man standing when it comes to the old-line Greek joints. Over the past 40 years, I have never eaten in the Mayflower and not gotten a salad with comeback sauce. I almost always order onions rings. But what I end up doing is dipping saltine crackers into the comeback sauce and eating that combination as an additional appetizer.
I could make a meal out of saltine crackers dipped in comeback sauce, but I would never take up a table in such a small dining room and order a side of comeback and a basket of crackers. So, I order something off of the menu – all of which is excellent and has stood the test of time – and eat most of it while ordering more crackers and comeback.
I do the same in catfish houses (another Mississippi staple). Most of the good fish houses place a bowl of sweet, mayonnaisey coleslaw next to a basket of Captain’s Wafers at the table at the beginning of the meal. Coleslaw and Captain’s Wafers are the chips and salsa of the fish house world. I could make a meal of just Coleslaw and Captain’s Wafers, too, but I order fish and fries to be polite.
Crackers before a meal are a classic old-line restaurant move. As a kid I ate at all of the old seafood houses on the Mississippi Gulf Coast – The Friendship House, The White Pillars, Mary Mahoney’s, Annie’s, and my favorite back then, Baricev’s. I ate my first raw oyster at Bariceiv’s. I also usually made a meal out of the Captain's Wafers and butter pats that were in a basket in the table and was rarely able to eat the fried shrimp I ordered as an entrée.
Whether it’s used as a salad dressing, an accompaniment for onion rings, a condiment for cheeseburgers, a side sauce for fried pickles, or as a dip for saltine crackers, comeback sauce is a true Mississippi original.