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Politics

Alex Dennery and the Creation of Mississippi Comeback Sauce

April 15, 2018

In studying Greek-American influences on American food traditions and habits, we must make the distinction between national and regional impact. Clearly, the Detroit Coney Island hot dog, Cincinnati chilly and chili-dogs, gyros and various candies and ice cream creations are found across the nation. Others such as Comeback sauce, John’s “Angel Hair” slaw dressing, Greek-American made traditional cheeses (and yes even yogurt) are or have been principally regional in their production, distribution, and popularity.

As the tale is now told, sometime in 1936 (other sources assert it was in the 1920s), Alex Dennery (John Alexander Tounaris) created Comeback Sauce (as his house dressing) at his Rotisserie Restaurant then located on US 49 at Five Points in Jackson, MS. As Malcolm White, noted restaurateur and executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, writes in his entry on Comeback Sauce in the Mississippi Encyclopedia, “many native Jacksonians and visitors alike are fond of pouring the dressing over saltine crackers as a first course while waiting for the salad to arrive. Locals enjoy this ‘redneck hors d’oeuvre’ so much that many restaurants will not put big bottles of the sauce on the table for fear that the entire bottle will be consumed before the salad arrives.’ Today, Comeback sauce is certainly not restricted to just crackers or salads. ‘Mississippians have been known to use the tangy, orange and sometimes garlicky sauce to bring flavor to shrimp, crab cakes, fried tomatoes, fried chicken and French fries…(Clarion Ledger June 28, 2016).’

“While Dennery and his Rotisserie Restaurant are credited as the ‘origin-point’ for Comeback sauce (a recipe Dennery guarded closely) it is also acknowledged that in the late 1970s and early 1980s the only places one could find Comeback sauce in Jackson was in Greek-owned restaurants such as the Mayflower, the Elite, Crechale’s and Bill’s Greek Taverna which all spawned their own variations on this sauce treat. Gradually, this condiment was to be found in the menus of other local Jackson non-Greek restaurants such as the Cherokee, Walker’s Drive-In, Primo’s, CS’s and Hal & Mal’s. From there comeback sauce spread throughout the state to the point where now it’s almost as if you have a ‘Comeback sauce’ or you’re out of step with traditional Mississippian cuisine.

“Comeback sauce is far from a sacred tradition. Chef and restaurateur Robert St. John of Hattiesburg, MS is often quoted as describing comeback sauce as ‘the offspring of the incestuous marriage between thousand island dressing and remoulade sauce…there is no slow build up. The name itself—as in, so good you’ll ‘come back’ for more—is a promise of gratification (http://grillax.com/comeback).’
“Over the years some considerable controversy has credited others with this taste creation. Some writers have identified the Mayflower Cafe, Jackson Mississippi’s oldest restaurant with being the origin-point of this tangy delight. However, in 2017, the Mayflower’s current owner Jerry Kountouris, settled the debate by saying flatly, ‘it was The Rotisserie (where Comeback sauce originated).’ Malcolm White, carried on considerable research on this topic for his entry on Comeback sauce in the Encyclopedia of Mississippi (Ted Ownby et. al. Eds. University Press of Mississippi, 2017: 266-267).
White interviewed John Dennery, a descendant of Alex Dennery, a Rotisserie staff-cook as well as other local Jackson Greek restaurateurs. It is worth stressing that White undertook his investigation since Comeback sauce/dressing has come to be a signature recipe of Mississippi.

There are literally dozens of recipes available on the Internet for comeback sauce/dressing. Here is just one Comeback Sauce recipe from the Kitchen of Deep South Dish website to give you some real world taste to this account (www.deepsouthdish.com).

Mississippi Comeback Sauce

1/4 cup of olive oil
1/4 cup of chili sauce
1/4 cup of ketchup
1/2 to 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon of spicy mustard
1 cup of mayonnaise
1/4 teaspoon of freshly cracked black pepper, or to taste
Couple dashes of hot sauce
1/4 teaspoon of Cajun seasoning (like Slap Ya Mama), or to taste
1/2 teaspoon of onion powder
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
The juice of 1/2 of a lemon

Put all of the ingredients in a blender and process until well mixed. Taste and adjust for seasonings. Store in fridge.

Cook’s Note: “Worcestershire sauce can be a strong flavor for some. Start with 1/2 teaspoon and increase up to a full tablespoon, or more, to taste. For an extra spicy kick, substitute Sriracha chili sauce for the regular chili sauce. For an extra spicy kick, substitute Sriracha chili sauce for the regular chili sauce. Storage time will depend on the freshness of the mayonnaise, but try to use this up in about a week or so generally. Be sure to store it in the fridge a tightly closed container, like a Mason jar if you have one and remember you can use it as a sandwich spread, on a salad, on hamburgers, as a dipping sauce for French fries and other fried foods, and it’ll be gone before you know it!”

There is a deeper more complex tradition going on here that we should note if only in passing. It has been asserted by researchers that Comeback Sauce (spelled in various ways) was first cited in a 1906 Kansas City, MO newspaper where African-Americans are noted as using a comeback sauce on barbecued meats. I have located a Pensacola Journal article on Florida resort hotels where “salmon salad with come-back” is mentioned as daily fare (July 22, 1906). So, clearly some version of a tangy sauce called comeback was in use from the early 1900s onward.

Dennery’s version of Comeback Sauce (as well as those versions that stay close to his version) have never disappeared. In point of fact, “what started as a humble effort by a Greek immigrant in the capital city to offer customers a distinct flavor has become a way to offer a taste of Mississippi to the world. The dressing has surfaced in the restaurants of James Beard-recognized chefs…supermarket aisles and gas stations that serve up fried offerings (http://grillax.com/comeback).”

And the tradition lives on between the Mississippi state lines. “For 70 years, Mike Kountouris operated the Mayflower Cafe in Jackson, Mississippi. The Mayflower is an institution in the South, a place where the locals break bread with lawyers, politicians, and celebrities. Through the ups and downs, Kountouris kept the spirit alive at the cafe with a secret ingredient: his family. Since his death in late 2005, his daughter, Dallasite Callie McDole, is keeping Kountouris’ spirit alive by bottling his famous Comeback Dressing. Her dad originally created the dressing for a Greek salad that he topped with a clump of crabmeat…’It has taken me three years to get the large batches to taste close to my dad’s,’ McDole says… ‘I want his recipe to live on.’

“McDole has bottled the dressing as Pappou’s Dressing. Locally, Flying Fish serves the sauce on its fish tacos, and bottles are available at Flavors from Afar (6712 Snider Plaza; 214-636-2327) (D Magazine (Dallas) August 2009).”

While the Rotisserie Restaurant is no longer open for business, its legacy lives on. John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi, states the case plainly: “Comeback Sauce is Greek restaurant history in a bottle. It comes from Greek tradition in Jackson. It’s uniquely Mississipi (olemiss.edu).”

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