Real quick Crab Louis can also be written as Crab Louie. I will be using Louis as it is the way I see it written most often. I have been wracking my brain on how and when I first heard of Crab Louis and I got nothing. I definitely knew of the recipe before this blog but I am coming up short. This was not something I grew up with that is for sure. Crab (or most shellfish) was not in the budget in the McDowell household when I was growing up.
What is Crab Louis?
The dish is a salad that is typically a mound of Dungeness crab meat on a bed of lettuce surrounded by wedges of hard-boiled eggs and tomatoes. It is then topped with the Louis dressing. Lump crab meat, lobster, or even shrimp is sometimes substituted for the Dungeness crab meat that is prevalent
in the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes (especially in modern times) avocado can be added to the salad. So what is this Louis dressing? Well, it is typically a mayonnaise and chili sauce base with various items such as onion or chives, pickles, olives, egg, or green peppers mixed in.
What?!? Hold up there Bon Bon. This seems awfully familiar to the Thousand Island post you did….. Yes, you are correct. It is very similar. I can’t really figure out the difference between the two dressings as they overlap A LOT. Sometimes a Louis dressing may have heavy whipping cream that has been whipped or finely chopped green pepper added but I have found Thousand Island dressings that include these ingredients as well. The only difference I could really find is that sometimes a Louis dressing may include horseradish to emulate cocktail sauce that is often used as a dipping sauce for shellfish. Trust me I have compared hundreds of Crab Louis dressing and Thousand Island recipes trying so many that I started to feel like that Always Sunny in Philadelphia Charlie conspiracy meme.
Who and where was Crab Louis created?
So like many old recipes, there are a few different stories on the origin of Crab Louis. While most agree that it is an early 20th-century American West Coast creation no one really knows who and where. Though there are two main locations that get brought up. The first is that it originated in San Francisco, California and the second is in Seattle, Washington. Famed food writer James Beard is much more pragmatic on the issue and claims that there is a possibility that this salad originated in both places around the same time. New York Times food writer and cookbook author, Craig Claiborne possibly had the reason why it could originate in both places as he called the sauce “simply a West Coast version of the French sauce remoulade”.
There are a few restaurants that people say could claim the origin of Crab Louis. There are two main contenders to the origins and one that also gets mentioned from time to time. The first is Solari’s. According to Helen Evan Brown’s West Coast Cook Book (1952), Crab Louis was mentioned in connection to Solari’s in Clarence Edward’s Bohemian San Francisco in 1914. The book was a gourmands guide to the city of San Francisco. Though The Sunset Cookbook (1965) does mention Solari serving the dish in 1911. The second is the St. Francis Hotel. Many feel that the hotel was the origin and it was included in the 1919 Hotel St. Francis Cook Book. The last is The Berger-Franz’s Old Poodle Dog. According to the story, chef Louis Coutard used to serve crab legs with a chili-based sauce. After his death, the restaurant honored him by putting them as a special on the menu called “Crab Legs a la Louis” in 1908.
The Seattle story goes that it is from the Olympic Club. A 1960s reader wrote into a newspaper with a possible origin story. According to them, a French chef named Louis was hired by the Olympic Club of Seattle. He invented this dish after becoming “more than enthusiastic over the large sweet Dungeness Crab”. Club members loved it so much that they dubbed it Crab Louis after the French chef. She gives the date sometime before 1909 because she remembers it being served at her wedding which was that year. Evan Jones, a food historian and writer, gives the year as 1904 at Seattle’s Olympic Club but has no clue who was the Louis it was named after. Also, note that John Mariani and The American Heritage Cookbook both throw in their hat for the Seattle origin story.
When was Crab Louis popular?
Despite the possibility that Seattle was the origin of crab Louis, this dish has always been somewhat of a San Francisco cult classic. A 1959 article commented that many Floridians return from their San Francisco vacations “enthusiastically telling of crab Louis, the specialty for which San Francisco is just famous”. Crab Louis was called a West Coast favorite in a 1969 newspaper. Another article in 1979 shared this sentiment calling it a “renowned San Francisco specialty” which many people “seek out” when visiting. Erica Peters in her book San Francisco: A Food Biography (2013) calls crab Louis the “city’s iconic salad” as well as considers it a historic dish. It has been served in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf since the 1920s.
The dish quickly became a popular dish with home cooks. In the mid-century, Crab Louis was called a “restaurant specialty” that could easily be made at home. A 1959 article called it an “old-time favorite way” to prepare crab. It went on to say that “you are up and away for a cool, refreshing experience with this gourmet salad”. It was lauded as not only “a scrumptious meal for a special luncheon” but also perfect as a main dish on a hot summer day. A 1969 article agreed when it wrote that it is a “taste-tempting meal for a special luncheon or a wonderful dinner entrée on those ‘too-hot-to-cook’ days”.
Food writer and cookbook author James Beard in his cookbook American Cookery said that though it became a popular salad throughout the United States, there were way too many bad versions of the dressing. He still shared this sentiment in the 1980s when he wrote in his newspaper column that “there have been many different versions of this, some quite dreadful”. Many including Beard agree that the dressing is what elevates the salad. A 1996 article joked that the dressing could be spread on an old shoe and it would still taste good.
Why Make Crab Louis?
First it is a piece of West Coast food history that is super simple to put together. The hardest part is making the dressing and that is a cinch. The recipe is also perfect on a hot summer’s day as it needs no cooking. Dungeness and lump crab meat can be kind of pricey so a pound of shrimp can be substituted. Also avocado taste quite nice in this salad. Actually, cubes of avocado is how I tested this dressing and salad because I am not a Rockefeller with a crab meat budget!
How To Make Crab Louis?
Like I said early, this recipe is but one way to make this salad.
The San Francisco salad: Crab Louis
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 1/2 cup chili sauce
- 1/4 cup green pepper, finely chopped
- 2 Tablespoons green onions, sliced thin
- 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 1 pound Dungeness or Jumbo Lump crab meat (depending on what coast you live on)
- 4 cups of lettuce greens, chopped
- 2 tomatoes sliced into wedges
- 4 eggs, hardboiled and sliced into wedges.
- Optional: paprika and sliced green onions for garnish.
- In a bowl, mix together the mayo, chili sauce, green pepper, green onions, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Chill in fridge or at least an hour.
- Dress the lump crab meat with some of the dressing.
- On four plates, arrange the lettuce. Divided the crab meat between the four plates in a mound in the center. Arrange the tomato and egg wedges around the crab meat. Sprinkle with paprika and garnish with green onions if using. Serve with extra Louis dressing.
One thought on “The History of Crab Louis or Louie”
Very nice, looks great