Comeback sauce

At Fan and Johnny’s restaurant is a plate of fried green tomatoes with a side of comeback sauce.

It’s the sauce that keeps you coming back for more.

Many Mississippi restaurants feature their own variations of a comeback sauce, a tangy, zesty culinary creation that’s orange in color.

It can be used as a dipping sauce, usually paired with fried foods or fresh veggies, or served as a salad dressing. While there are many versions of the sauce, there are also some quirky variations of its name, such as come-back, kum-bak, kumback or kumbak.

“It’s very much a Mississippi sauce,” said chef Taylor Bowen Ricketts, owner of Fan and Johnny’s. “Comeback sauce is a very regional condiment that has kind of surpassed being a dressing and is much more than a dipping sauce now. It’s so friendly for different kinds of foods, and it’s so flavorful.”

Ricketts’ restaurant has been serving comeback sauce since it opened in downtown Greenwood. The sauce is a recipe Ricketts has been making for about 30 years.

“The comeback sauce recipe that I use was my grandfather’s, Johnny,” she said. “I first started making it after he taught me how, and I got his old recipe book, and I have not altered it much at all.”

Usually, some of the ingredients in a comeback sauce include mayonnaise, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, black pepper, chili sauce, lemon and garlic.

Ricketts said, however, her recipe is not a mayonnaise-based one like many comeback versions.

“It actually has a surprisingly little amount of mayonnaise,” she said.

A hard question to answer is “What is comeback sauce?”

“Some people may say it’s kind of like thousand island or ranch dressing,” which include the main ingredients of mayonnaise or ketchup and mayonnaise.

With its orange color and delicious, tangy taste that keeps customers coming back for more, the Fan and Johnny’s sauce is a unique variation.

Comeback sauce

Originating in Jackson in the 1930s, comeback sauce was created as a salad dressing. Now it’s frequently used as a dipping sauce.

“Ours is very different,” she said. “This has very little mayonnaise. It’s pureed onion that gives it its creaminess.”

The origins of comeback sauce can be traced to central Mississippi, and there have been several theories as to how the sauce was first created. But the theory that most hold true is that the sauce began in a Greek restaurant in Jackson in the 1930s.

“That’s my theory,” said Malcolm White, the former executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission. “That’s what I’ve written about. It began here at the old Rotisserie Restaurant that was owned by the Dennery family.”

White may be the top comeback sauce aficionado in the state. The entry on the sauce in the Mississippi Encyclopedia was written by White.

“Paper records are scarce for such ephemeral matters as family-held salad dressing recipes, but oral histories point to Five Points in Jackson as the source of the legendary spread,” he writes about the sauce in the Mississippi Encyclopedia.

Alec Dennery’s Rotisserie Restaurant, located on U.S. 49 at Five Points in Jackson, became known for its signature “rotisserie dressing” — comeback sauce.

White writes in the Mississippi Encyclopedia that the sauce’s name “is obviously a reference to the idea that people who try the zesty blend will always come back for more.”

He continues, “In the early days of fine dining in Jackson, Greek immigrants dominated the kitchens and counters of the city’s restaurant scene. According to Mike Kountouris of the Mayflower Café (a Jackson restaurant), language difficulties meant that young Greek immigrants could find work only in kitchens or as busboys.”

Dennery, of Jackson’s famous Dennery’s restaurant family, created the dressing when the Rotisserie was opening up in 1936. He was “looking for a signature salad dressing,” White said.

White interviewed Roy Milner, a longtime employee of the Dennery family who had worked in the kitchen with Alec Dennery. Before comeback was created, Milner said the Rotisserie staff tried and failed several times to concoct what Dennery wanted for the signature dressing. So, Dennery went into the kitchen and began experimenting.

“He concocted this dressing that was sort of a take of the most popular dressing of the times, which was thousand island,” said White. “But he took out the sweetness and added ingredients that he was familiar with coming from the Greek tradition — garlic, chili sauce — and he came up with this orange concoction and named it comeback.”

The dressing was sold at the restaurant, and it soon began to spread to other area eateries.

White said “all of the Greek restaurants in Jackson” had a version of the sauce.

“And now every restaurant in Jackson has a version of it — in fact, it’s everywhere,” he said.

White calls the comeback sauce at his family’s Jackson restaurant, Hal & Mal’s, a super garlic version.

“It’s incredibly popular,” he said. “People love the stuff. They put it on everything. They dip their po’boys in it.”

Ricketts grew up in Jackson, the birthplace of comeback.

“There were several restaurants in Jackson where I grew up that served comeback sauce,” she said. “My grandfather, they didn’t have chips or snacks like that in their house. It was saltines and comeback — that was the snack.”

Fan and Johnny’s serves comeback as a dipping sauce with dishes such as fried alligator and fried green tomatoes.

“We put it on an oyster po’boy and a Reuben,” said Ricketts. “We’ll do other things with it, as well. A lot of places use it as a salad dressing, and we do too; it’s an option.”

It’s also served with shrimp cocktail and with a crab meat salad.

“Like ranch, everybody uses it for everything and on everything these days,” Ricketts said.

“There are certain things that it goes better with, like the alligator — it’s just natural,” she said.

Comeback sauce quickly became popular after its debut in Greek-owned restaurants in Jackson. As years passed and different dressings came out, such as ranch, comeback’s popularity diminished.

“It became kind of old school. It was seen as out of trend, and other dressings began to appear in restaurants” said White.

But recently, the sauce — like its name — has made a comeback.

“With the advent of the Cooking Network and regional foods and people looking for things that were authentic, I think it had a real renaissance, and I think it’s firmly in its second reincarnation. I see it more and more outside of Mississippi.”

Although comeback sauce’s popularity may be spreading throughout the South, “It’s one of those things that I think is uniquely Mississippi,” White said.

• Contact Ruthie Robison at 581-7235 or rrobison@gwcommonwealth.com.

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