“Shrimp and prawn cocktail scarcely mentioned in 1947 and claiming only 2% of adherents in 1962, topped the fish course in 1973 and was especially the choice of middle-aged, middle-class southerners”
John Burnett, Plenty and Want
In spite of consistent, snobby derision from many culinary quarters following the prawn cocktail’s original rise to fame in the 60s, this excellent dish has stood the test of time, proof of which can be seen by the fact that the prawn mayonnaise sandwich remains one of the most popular, and the cocktail itself remains a favourite on menus across the UK. And it’s not only restaurants where it’s popular – the prawn cocktail doesn’t just taste good. For the ‘home’ cook it is easy and quick. If you keep a bag of good quality prawns in your freezer it is effectively a store cupboard recipe – along with tarragon eggs it’s the faithful standby in the face of unexpected guests. An even more 60s variation is to serve it in half a stoned avocado instead of in a glass.
The origins and history of the prawn cocktail
Indeed it now seems so perennially British that it’s difficult to accept that in fact the dish has its origins in the US and it’s a dish which has morphed from originally being an oyster cocktail to majoring instead on prawn… or shrimp… or langoustine.
According to John Mariani, in his Dictionary of American Food and Drink published in the early ‘80s, back in the wild west – well, in fact, in mid 19th century San Francisco – a miner had panned a nugget bigger than a peanut and went into a bar to celebrate. He ordered a whiskey and a plate of oysters – oysters were considered a status symbol then much as they are now. These oysters may have been a bit past their sell-by date because (necessity being the mother of etc) the miner bravely poured an explosive mix of ketchup, horseradish, vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper over the oysters. Then, perhaps fired with culinary pioneering spirit, or perhaps seeking yet stronger flavouring to mask the uncertain oysters, he emptied the plate of be-sauced oysters into his whiskey glass.
“What sort of mess do you call that, partner?” asked the fascinated barman
“That is what I call an oyster cocktail” replied the miner, who had clearly missed his vocation in marketing
However, the barman had clearly not missed his. The following day an advertisement appeared in the window of the restaurant declaring OYSTER COCKTAIL – FOUR BITS PER GLASS. And a week later the novelty was on offer at every restaurant in the city. Later, during Prohibition restaurants were at a loss as to what to do with their stemmed wine and cocktail glasses. Another flash of creativity, and the correct glass in which to serve the oyster cocktail was fixed.
It’s a short hop from oysters to prawns, but a larger one across the Atlantic. The sixties celebrity cook (almost the first in fact) Fanny Craddock replaced the vinegar with lemon juice and mixed in mayonnaise, and then later in the eighties the sauce was finally given a name thanks to a beleaguered Royal Navy chef – it became known as Mary (or Marie) Rose sauce.
Here is Saucy Dressings’ recipe for a prawn cocktail:
This is enough for four as a starter to a hearty meal
- 200g/7 oz fat cooked prawns, or good-quality shrimp or langoustine
- 1 baby gem lettuce – finely shredded so that you can easily eat it with a teaspoon
- 2”/5 cm of deseeded and diced cucumber – by de-seeding it you keep it dryer (you can also add chopped celery, avocado, and melon)
- Mary Rose sauce – as described here
- optional garnish – chunks of lime
- for a bit of added pep you could grate a little ginger over too
Line the cocktail glass with the shredded lettuce. Mix the seafood and cucumber into the Mary Rose sauce… and Bob’s your uncle!
For more on the ’60s menu follow this link.
More quotes about the prawn cocktail
“Everybody, but everybody, loves prawn cocktail…..the shredded lettuce…the pappy pink prawn in its sweet pink sauce somehow combines to deliver a dish which contradicts all the rules that constitute fine cooking.”
Simon Hopkinson and Lindsey Bareham
“It’s all in the sauce”
“Something simple, but really luscious”
“What arrived was a highball glass, piled with hot battered prawns, their delicate flavour mislaid in the deep-fat fryer. Underneath that was a cloyingly sweet Marie Rose sauce ice cream – there are good reasons for not making ice cream out of mayonnaise and tomato ketchup, not least politeness – then a layer of avocado cream, and finally a plug of underpowered shellfish jelly. From this I can tell you that Langtry’s does indeed celebrate British food, but only in the way a murderer might dance upon its victim’s grave.”
My Dining Hell, Jay Rayner