It being Valentine’s Day the other day, we decided to eat in extravagantly. We thought we’d begin festivities with shrimp cocktail, an elegant, dated-but-always-tasty classic.
Which got me to thinking: why is it called Shrimp Cocktail? Headed directly to the late Alan Davidson’s indispensable Oxford History of Food. In an otherwise magisterial volume, “shrimp cocktail” did not appear. Turned next to the first Joy of Cooking (1931). The cocktail sauce recipe is basic and straightforward (ketchup, horseradish, lemon juice, hot sauce) but provides no explanation re: why the name. The Rombauers suggest lavishing this sauce on shellfish and on small cocktail sausages, a to-my-mind somewhat alarming proposition (on the other hand, my mother has a recipe from the 60s which calls for cocktail hot dogs heated in a sauce equal parts chili sauce and grape jelly … sounds lurid, but it’s actually tasty ... but I digress).
Googling led me to this http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodlobster.html#cocktail, wherein the history of the dish is revealed. So obvious, yet so not: called “cocktail” because it was served in cocktail glasses (I always thought cocktails were liquid, or that they were a combination of pills … oh, but there’s the fruit cocktail, isn’t there?).
Most recipes consulted called for chili sauce combined with ketchup. If bottled chili sauce exists in Italy, I would love to know where. But the Indonesian sambal oelek does and stood in for it. Horseradish isn’t easy to find in these parts, but Pegna in Florence (via dello Studio 8/r, telephone 055/282701, www.pegna.it) almost always has it on hand. (Odd thought: are there more expatriate Indonesians living in Florence than expatriate Americans?)
A heads-up about Italianate shrimp: it’s sold head-on. Many natives contend that the best meat in the critter is found in the head (it certainly does taste sweeter, shrimpier even). No such thing as “medium” or “jumbo” shrimp. There’s gamberetti (little shrimp), gamberoni (big shrimp) … and then the “scampi”—a different thing whose definition I’ll save for a later date. We feed the heads to the dogs—the Three Stooges lap up heads, shells, and tail ends.
Apparently it’s hard to find shrimp in this state in the States. So save the tails for your pups. If the sambal oelek makes the sauce too salty, add a little more lemon juice than called for.
Italians make a similar sauce to our very American cocktail sauce and call it “salsa rossa” – red sauce. Gamberetti are used, and you dip things like vegetables into it. Tillie used to enjoy this sauce at aperitivo time. We went practically every night at 7 pm sharp to Rex (a great bar near Santa Croce), and she adored chowing down on this (a celery or carrot stick provided the vehicle for doing so).
Shrimp Cocktail for Two
¾ lb. shrimp, pre-cooked; beheaded, peeled, tail tip left intact
½ c. ketchup
¼ c. mayonnaise (Hellman’s if you can get it; in Italy, you cannot)
¼ c. sambal oelek or chili sauce if you’re lucky enough to find it
Juice of one small lemon
3 generous T. prepared horseradish sauce (or less)
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
Handful of arugula
Handful of mesclun
Lemon wedges, optional
Two tumblers or martini glasses
Mix the ketchup, mayonnaise, sambal oelek, lemon juice, horseradish, Worcestershire, and pepper in a bowl.
Divide the arugula and mesclun in the two tumblers. Add the shrimp to each, tamp lightly. Pour the cocktail sauce over both tumblers, and eat immediately. Squirt with lemon wedges if desired.
Feed Stooges the shrimp heads/bodies and tails(upon eating the shrimp). Realize that said action gives new meaning to the expression “dog breath.”
And this just in: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-02-14/dog-names-of-the-future?cid=hp:vertical:r Though neither Waldo nor Lulu nor Harry appear on the top ten list of dog names of the future, Waldo’s name does end in “o” (see number 6). And Lulu appears as number 14 on the list. Harry? Ah, nope.