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West Indies Salad

Sour Apple Jolly Ranchers taste like my youth. It’s true. When I was 10 years old, my weekly allowance was $5. In those days I would ride my bike to the Pik-A-Pak convenience store where I could purchase a whole display box of Sour Apple Jolly Ranchers for, you guessed it, $5.

That box which probably held 100 of the tart, hard candies would last three days, at best. During those three days, it would have been hard to carry on a conversation with me when I didn’t have a Sour Apple Jolly Rancher in my mouth.

The other day a friend handed me a Sour Apple Jolly Rancher. I popped it into my mouth and was instantly transformed back to 1971 in my childhood neighborhood, riding my Schwinn Stingray bicycle, Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” swimming around in my head, and a pocketful of hard candy stuffed in my cutoff jeans that were cut so short the pockets stuck out from underneath the fray. Someone call Nashville, there’s a country song in there somewhere.

Foods have those types of associations with me. Boiled shrimp tastes like the beach. During our one-week beach vacation every year we probably eat a boiled-shrimp supper three nights out of seven. I don’t know why I don’t do that more often. I love boiled shrimp. Our restaurant, the Crescent City Grill, goes through eight tons of shrimp every year. I have plenty of shrimp available to me. My family could eat boiled shrimp for breakfast, lunch and dinner and it wouldn’t make a dent in the restaurant’s inventory. But boiled shrimp is one of those foods that – at least in our family – is reserved for the beach.

West Indies Salad reminds me of my family’s fish camp on the Mississippi Gulf Coast when I was a child. Even though I’ve served that salad in our restaurants for the past 32 years during the crab harvests of August, it still takes me back to 1972 sitting around the kitchen table, my brother, mother and me. We would put out crab traps for the week and check them twice a day. At the end of the day we would harvest crabs from the traps, bring them back to our camp, boil them, pick them, and my mother would make West Indies Salad.

I don’t ever remember doing anything else with our crabmeat. Had I known then what I know now I would have baked the crabmeat into an au gratin-style casserole. Or I would have lightly sautéed the crabmeat in butter, flashed it with a little white wine, and topped it onto whatever fish we caught that day. I would also make crab cakes. My mother occasionally added the crabmeat to her gumbo, and she made a mean gumbo. But mostly we ate West Indies Salad on crackers.

Picking crabmeat from freshly boiled crabs will make one appreciate that particular seafood even more. It’s not like peeling shrimp. It takes a lot of time and tough, callused fingers to pick crabmeat efficiently and effectively. Once you’ve done it, you’ll never again look at a container of lump crabmeat without feeling a deep sense of appreciation for the pickers who packed it.

Peaches taste like summer. No other food taste like summer to me. Sweet corn comes close, but sweet corn can’t touch peaches. We are currently smack dab in the middle of the summer peach season. I bought a case the other day that turned out to be the sweetest, juiciest peaches I have ever eaten. They were so good I brought a case to the restaurant and they made a cocktail with half of the case and several cheesecakes with the other.

Blueberries are a local summer fruit, but for some reason they don’t taste like summer, though blueberries complement peaches. There are several fruits that complement each other. The next time you purchase peaches, peel them, slice them, macerate them in a little bit of sugar, and put them in the refrigerator for an hour or two. Then for dessert serve a scoop of vanilla ice cream surrounded by your sliced, lightly macerated peaches and top it all off with a few fresh blueberries. That is my favorite two-fruit combination.

Strawberries and bananas are a fruit pairing that I love as well. I don’t know where that comes from but if you try and mix strawberries and bananas together in a bowl it seems to work. That particular pairing also works on cereal, but not as well as peaches and blueberries.

Then ultimate summer meal would be to start off with an appetizer of crabmeat au gratin, a West Indies Salad as the second course, pan-sautéed redfish topped with jumbo lump crabmeat and a light beurre blanc as an entrée, and ice cream with peaches and blueberries for dessert. If I suck on a few Sour Apple Jolly Ranchers while I’m cooking, the meal would be complete. We’ll leave the way-too-short cutoff jeans in the drawer.

ROBERT ST. JOHN is a restaurateur, chef and author. Find his recipe for West Indies Crab Salad and French Bread Croutons at robertstjohn.com.

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