Condiment Time-Travel

crablouis.jpgWho Invented Crab Louis?

It’s almost pink, not a pretty-in-pink pink but a sickly, Pepto pink. Neither liquid nor solid, it crawls from server to plate like lava, lava with chunks.

I know what those chunks are, because I chopped and diced green pepper, green onion, and green olive to create them.

Sure, I licked that spoon. But in the time it took for my palate to awaken, before I could compute the flavor and register my pleasure and approval — the taste was right, in the certain way that a blend of wrong things can be right — I found myself not in my own kitchen but at a small, naperied table, dwarfed by an enormous room with tall columns and large electric globes.

Sunlight tries to force its way through tea-colored curtains. (They look emerald in the illustration, but postcards of the time were colored fancifully.) Smoke drifts from the glossy bar, and polite clinking can be heard from similar tables around me, with muffled clatter somewhere in back.


A high, hard collar digs into my jaw. These sleeves are the roughest wool I’d ever felt, my pants the same. I touch my hair: grease. Everything is off, unreal, yet the crab salad in front of me looks like a friend because it wears the same thick, pink coat. I find myself tearing a soft roll and swiping things off my plate. Nothing ever tasted so good, nothing.I am in San Francisco, you see, some years after the earthquake, but before we enter the Great War, finishing my Crab Louis.Have you ever eaten or assembled a true Crab Louis, which most everyone spells and pronounces “Louie”? It’s an early-modern offering whose merit and value come from the happy collusion of two centuries and two places: staid old France and nervy new America.To be sure, we of the 21st century are genuinely surprised that ancient citizens ate salads. On National Public Radio we now learn that even the fecund dungeness crab, Louis’s raison d’être, is finally threatened. Of course, West Coast trawlers at last century’s turn returned to port with nets full of dripping pincers, so why not expect them forever?Opportunity grew everywhere; was kitchen genius wanting? Haute cuisine chefs of yore bragged in print about using chic canned corn and bottled sauce. So which of them invented this assortment of lettuce, hard-cooked egg, and same-day crab meat with a ketchupy remoulade or what we’d now call a quirky version of Russian or Thousand Island dressing?It may sound odd, but new recipes aren’t unique, like paintings. Instead, local ingredients and culinary fashions result in almost identical dishes that pop up in clusters, simultaneously, like novel mushrooms in welcoming soil.

So it is with Crab Louis, for I am sitting in one of at least three West Coast dining rooms that may have served it first. You can’t see me in the neutron-bomb card above, but that’s where I find myself, in the cafe of San Francisco’s Hotel St. Francis. Fame-queen chef Victor Hirtzler runs the kitchen, and will for quite some time.

Chef Victor Hirtzler.jpg

Major digression: Some claim that Hirtzler was responsible for Woodrow Wilson’s razor-thin second presidential victory in 1916. The story goes that the credible Republican candidate, Charles Evans Hughes, was to be hosted by the hotel’s owners at a pre-election banquet. But right before the meal, waiters went on strike. Because the kingly cook told his guests not to worry and himself served the food, the union leafleted the city, attacking Hughes as anti-labor — which, as a firm Republican, he most certainly was. Hughes lost California by 3673 votes, and therefore the White House. 

Our megalomaniac chef with the pointy beard probably assumed that his dinner was more than adequate compensation.

Here’s the Hirtzler Crab Louis recipe, from the May 7 menu in The Hotel St. Francis Cook Book, published in 1910:
Crab salad, Louis.jpg
Gendarme potatoes? Glad the chef’s not serving that reindeer leg on December 25, with or without the jus. You may read — and cook, if you have cinematic ambitions — the whole fat-laden tome page by page via an extraordinary online culinary resource called Feeding America, which archives dozens of influential U.S. cookbooks from the late 18th- to early 20th centuries.

Two More 

Postcards of Solari’s Restaurant, at 354 Geary Street, show that it was lit by pseudo-primitive Mission chandeliers that would now bring a pretty penny. In 1914, Clarence E. Edwords wrote the peripatetic and thoroughly charming Bohemian San Francisco: Its Restaurants and Their Most Famous Recipes, in which he includes Solari’s own Crab Louis — not in the body but in the afterthought index:

Take meat of crab in large pieces and dress with the following: One-third mayonnaise, two-thirds chili sauce, small quantity chopped English chow-chow, a little Worcestershire sauce and minced tarragon, shallots and sweet parsley. Season with salt and pepper and keep on ice.

The distinguished city of San Francisco cites that egg-absent, lettuce-free example as the world’s first. 

But chili sauce? Which chili sauce? Now that I think of it, chef Victor used an unnamed chili sauce, too. 

We must leave the creative Bay Area and head north, because Davenport’s, another prime Louis location, is the great hotel and restaurant of Spokane. Look at this place!

Davenport's restaurant, Spokane, 1906.jpg
Phony columns, wooden chairs, just like every other restaurant. My collar is killing me.

Davenport’s still exists, though it looks nothing like the faux-español one in 1906:


Publicity continues to claim that hotel founder “Crab” Louis Davenport invented the dish, using Seattle crustacea. (Did he invent the sofa as well?) His initial recipe hasn’t surfaced, but here’s what’s on the menu now, $20 at lunch, $22 for dinner:

Created by Louis Davenport himself, our signature salad is made with crisp butter lettuce topped with fresh crab, hard boiled eggs, tomatoes & pickled white asparagus dressed with a rich Louis dressing.

Butter lettuce isn’t crisp — that’s why it’s called “butter” lettuce. And the salad is “dressed” with a “dressing.”


Heinz Chili Sauce.jpg

Chili Sauce

No mention of chili sauce, and that is where we must take our attention, for there is a hoary chili sauce still to be found in markets. How had it escaped me?

Heinz makes it. I bought it. It sits on the shelf in its faceted glass bottle, sticking out its geriatric tongue. I emailed and phoned the Pittsburgh-based company to get information on the product’s history, but after numerous backs and forths, no one seemed to know. I tasted no chile pepper, and none is listed in the ingredients: tomato puree, water, distilled white vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, salt, corn syrup, dehydrated onions, spice, garlic powder, natural flavoring. You know the drill: HFCS can’t be historical; “spice” and “natural flavoring” are Nixonese mysteries.

Yet … when I twisted the white metal cap and tasted the red stuff with a very narrow spoon directly from the jar, I was jarred back, far back, into another eating place: Coney Island sweet, holding-hands warm, a hint of India with no risk, no tusk, no harm. 

Yes, I am transported. 

So I constructed my own original Crab Louis, balancing Heinz’s time-travel elixir with simple mayonnaise, Worcestershire, and salty chopped additions, staying far away from puerile avocado and tomato. The crab is the thing, and my East Coast mongers could never provide the sugary, throbbing Pacific flesh a real Louis requires.

So I do my best with what I have and pull myself to the present. Eating may take us back, all romantics know, but as food and everything else tells us, the past is never what it promised.


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  1. edith newhall says

    Great piece, Jeff! Can’t wait to try the original Crab salad, Louis, recipe, maybe with a haunch of venison to follow.

  2. says

    One of your more delicious columns, my friend. Someday I must recount the restraint with which Boston’s Locke Ober prepares Clams Casino. No doubt that dish, usually overwhelmed with bread crumb stuffing instead of fresh clams, was invented in Las Vegas or Reno.