If you ask Olive Davis what’s the key to being a successful chef in Gulfport, she might tell you three things: use good ingredients, be consistent and don’t get too crazy.
“Our clientele in Gulfport is a little more traditional. I do specials that are a little on the crazier side, but as far as the menu goes, we’ve tried to keep it kind of traditional,” says Chef Olive Davis, the master of sandwiches at one of downtown Gulfport’s newer eateries, Salty’s Sandwich Bar. “Our biggest selling sandwich is the turkey club, and a BLT right behind it, followed by probably the fried bologna. So they’re pretty standard sandwiches. We just try to use good ingredients and make sure that we do them correctly and consistently.”
Consistency, however, doesn’t mean bland.
“I get my bread from La Segunda in Tampa and a couple other bakeries,” Davis said. “We use Boar’s Head meats; I get fresh produce in every day.”
Davis gives the Reuben as an example of a sandwich that you don’t want to change too much. I was going to write a couple sentences here on the Reuben’s origins before discovering that this is actually a highly controversial subject. According to a 2016 article by Elizabeth Weil in Saveur Magazine, New York City and Omaha, Nebraska are battling it out for the coveted title of “Home of the Reuben Sandwich.”
Some say that Arnold Reuben combined ham, roast turkey, Swiss cheese and coleslaw between a couple slices of rye bread in New York City in 1914 and called it a Reuben’s Special. But this is far from our modern idea of a Reuben as corned beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing on rye.
One thing people do agree on is that the Reuben was invented sometime around the 1920s, which would make it about 100 years old now. And why mess with a sandwich that Americans have loved for a hundred years?
Davis’ favorite Reuben of all time came from Detroit, Michigan.
“In Michigan, where I grew up, there used to be a department store called Hudson’s Department Store, and they had a Reuben,” says Davis. “I went there for Reubens for years. Now I’ve been all over the place, and they still have the best one.”
Davis makes her own Thousand Island dressing for Salty’s Reuben. The homemade dressing is an example of one of the little things Davis does to upgrade classic sandwiches.
But, she says, “A Reuben is a Reuben. You can’t change it too much; otherwise it’s not a Reuben anymore.”
Davis’ Midwestern origins show up in certain menu items, like the Reuben and the fried bologna sandwich, but she’s also highly influenced by the South. Davis moved to the south in her 20s, and she still cites the region as one of the biggest influences on her cooking.
“Food is, in my opinion, so much better and abundant and fresh down here,” says Davis. “The abundance of beautiful seafood ingredients down here….I love living down here.”
When Davis does shake it up, it’s with her weekend specials, which allow her to incorporate seasonal ingredients like shrimp and soft-shell crab. She’s known for cooking seafood in the southern regional/Floribbean style, and these specials give her the opportunity to express that side of her cuisine.
Davis says she enjoys the combination of keeping it simple with sandwiches most days of the week and then getting creative on the weekends with specials.
When asked what she likes most about her work, Davis said, “I enjoy just being able to create and do whatever I like there…. It’s pretty wide open for creating.”