Prawn cocktail


We never cook with prawns, shrimps, crabs or lobsters in the classroom.  These crustaceans are just too expensive for everyday food, and remain a treat for those who can afford to eat out. My east end students know a lot about cockles, winkles and whelks dredged from the mud of the Thames estuary. These delicacies are sold on the fish stalls outside busy pubs at the weekend, and you eat them sprinkled liberally with brown vinegar squirted from a rather grubby white plastic bottle.  The chewy, muscley  flesh of these weird sea creatures is peppered with crunchy sand and small stones, and more than I can bear.  Thankfully we don’t need to know about it for the EXAM, and Cookery for Schools shares my dislike

‘The flesh of shellfish is considerably less digestible than that of white and oily fish, and is not universally popular.’

The book clumps lobsters, crayfish and crabs as shellfish so hey ho, gourmets everywhere, they should be cheap if they are that unpopular!

Prawn cocktail is a favourite restaurant dish of the seventies, particularly in the bargain Berni  Inns, which are famous for steak and chips and Black Forest Gateau.

This posh starter is served in a wine glass and made from prawns mixed with Marie Rose sauce, plonked on top of chopped limp lettuce.  To my alarm, the wine glass comes on a saucer with a frilly doyley, with slices of brown bread and butter.  It is the doyley that upsets me.  Don’t  Berni Inns know the first rule of doyley use?  Plain for savoury, frilly for sweet dishes.

In Wicksteed Park, where I worked as a waitress in my school holidays, the chef had huge glass jars of readymade, pale pink Heinz Marie Rose sauce to dollop into the prawn cocktail glass.  Its yucky ingredients were a mix of salad cream and tomato ketchup, which he had to mix up from the two components when the jar ran out.

H.E. Bates, an author who grew up in Northamptonshire, wrote his famous books, The Darling Buds of May about Pop Larkin and his family.  How I chuckled when I read When the Green Woods Laugh, when Pop and Ma visit the Jerebohm’s house for dinner where Pop thinks everything looks trés snob. The meal starts with prawn cocktail and this is a treasured paragraph.

‘Pop finds himself staring down at a small green glass dish in which reposed a concoction consisting of five prawns, a spoonful of soapy pink sauce and a sixth prawn hanging over  the edge of the glass as if searching for any of its mates that might have fallen overboard. You could have eaten the lot, Pop thought, with two digs of an egg-spoon.’

My grandfather told me once that he’d taught H.E. Bates at Kettering Grammar School in the nineteen twenties.  I was stunned, and desperate to ask more questions.  By this time my grandfather was in the twilight zone and found grandchildren very irritating, but H.E. Bate’s books deliciously depict the Northamptonshire countryside where I grew up, and his prawn cocktail will stay with me forever. I’d love to know what my grandfather taught him.

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Filed under Salads in the 1970s

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