Friday, June 15, 2012

Don't call it a comeback / I've been here for years.

Homemade Mississippi Comeback Sauce. © Ryan Schierling
Twenty years ago, in Fort Collins, Colorado, I was a store manager working for the clown. Say what you will about McDonald's Corporation, they were my first job and an invaluable life lesson in the business end of food. When it was time to move on, I took the good, left the bad and haven't really looked back since.

Until a few weeks ago, that is, when I developed a single-minded focus on Mississippi's mother of all condiments, Comeback Sauce. I've taken a shine to some specific regional Southern specialties, especially ones that aren't often found outside their culinary stomping grounds.

Comeback Sauce (née Kumback Sauce, Cumback Sauce) is a Jackson, Mississippi (that's MS, Jackson if you're nasty) original from the 1930s, widely credited to Greek immigrant Alex Dennery at his restaurant The Rotisserie. Used as a "house dressing," comeback seems to be closely related to 1000 Island, Russian, Catalina and French dressings in spirit. A British Marie Rose? Parallel invention, perhaps.

The only differences in these very similar sauces are in the… subtleties. A bit of grated horseradish there, some minced onion here, tomato paste instead of chili sauce, yogurt instead of mayonnaise, a touch of white vinegar or pickle juice; like every sauce or dressing the whims of the cook and the plenty of the pantry come into play.

But I digress. For me, this really all goes back 20 years to french fry sauce. McDonald's french fry sauce.
We were getting it in gallon bags for our bulk condiment dispensers in the lobby and people were going crazy for it. Light pink, pumped into paper cups, perfectly engineered for McDonald's french-fried potatoes. I never saw an ingredient list in the packing materials, but as often as I heard "mayo and ketchup," I also heard "buttermilk and spices." Could that have meant Ranch dressing and chili sauce? I didn't think twice about it then. Only the corporate chefs at Mickey Dee's knew.

I solicited the advice of my then-roommate Dan Camp – who is now a 24-year McDonald's veteran, current National Training Manager and head of U.S. Training / Learning and Development for McDonald's Corporation. He has the same faint recollections of ingredients, but did tell me that fry sauce was discontinued in U.S. markets several years ago, mostly due to cost. He also relayed that, sadly enough, the Ronald McDonald in the photograph with me retired last year. That's a helluva run for an official Ronald and I hope they find someone that can fill those giant red shoes. 

(L) Me and the boss, circa 1992. (R) Biloxi Bacon cookbook, 1979. © Ryan Schierling
Anyhow, when I went looking for the similarly-pink comeback sauce recipes, I pulled out the only Mississippi-specific cookbook we own, Biloxi Bacon. This well-worn, self-published paperback was written by our Seattle neighbor Erin Chegwidden's grandmother, Ann Taft Bosse in 1979. The forward has an early history of the settlement at Biloxi, Mississippi and the rest is a wonderfully-local collection of seafood dishes. But, unfortunately, there was no comeback sauce mentioned anywhere, so I turned to the internet, dredging the Ole Miss bulletin boards and sifting through stories in Jackson's Clarion-Ledger newspaper.

Now, regional sauce recipes usually have a baseline set of ingredients and comeback sauce is no exception – mayonnaise and chili sauce (and/or ketchup). Ingredients are then added or subtracted by the cook based on availability or dietary preference. I found as many sauce recipes as I could, made a list of similarities and a list of differences, and put together three comeback sauce recipes to test. Oh, and I bought six pounds of sweet Texas 1015 onions, because we were going to be dipping a lot of onion rings in the table sauce of the south.

The best version we tried was just sweet enough from the ketchup, nicely piquant from the woozy and lemon juice, and had a good bite from the cracked black pepper, spicy mustard and hot sauce – it was 1000 Island minus the sweet pickle, Russian minus the horseradish (and traditional caviar), and French minus the attitude. Paired with the sweet onion rings (soaked in buttermilk, dredged in well-seasoned flour and dunked in a chile beer batter), it's the only time in recent memory we've had a dinner of nothing but fried food dipped in a lovely rosé sauce. 

Comeback sauce

1 cup real mayonnaise (we used Duke's)
1/3 cup chili sauce
1/4 cup ketchup
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon spicy Creole mustard
1 tablespoon freshly-cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon hot sauce (we used Crystal)
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
juice of 1 lemon

Mix all ingredients well. We employed a KitchenAid stand mixer with a whisk attachment. You can use a blender or food processor, or just beat the hell out of it with a whisk. Refrigerate overnight to let the flavors meld.

Serve with… anything. Dip saltines in it, dunk any and all fried foods, drizzle it over a salad, swipe crudités through it, put it on toast.

Makes 2 cups. 

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