From the Homestead Kitchen: The El Pato Shrimp Cocktail

by Alexandra Rasic

Our friend Ernest Miller once again provides the inspiration for this week’s installment of From the Homestead Kitchen. In 2015, he and a group of high school students he was mentoring from the Montebello Applied Technology Center worked with us to present A Taste of California: Chili, Chiles, and Hot Sauce. Using chiles as his inspiration, Ernest created an unforgettable, uniquely Californian menu showcasing how chiles have been used from the days of the missions to the present day. As guests made their way around the Museum grounds, they sampled red and green chile tamales, Ptomaine Tommy’s Chiliburgers, Tapatío Pickled Deviled Eggs, Chipotle Brownies, and more. At each station, students donned in chefs’ whites explained the history behind the dish they made, shared some details about how it was prepared, and served guests with great pride and attention to detail.

A student from the Montebello Applied Technology Center waits for hungry visitors.

In addition to Ptomaine Tommy’s Chili Sauce, which was written about in an earlier post, the El Pato Shrimp Cocktail was another favorite recipe created for this program. Mere mention of it makes many a Museum staff members’ mouths’ water. El Pato is the star of this dish. Not the shrimp. We joked that the cocktail sauce was so good we’d take shots. Taste aside, there is a lot of history in this dish, both regionally, and state-wide. Let’s start with the regional history.

Walker Foods, the makers of the iconic Mexican tomato sauce we know as El Pato, was started by James Walker in Los Angeles in 1905. Today, the business is still in the hands of the family, being run by James’ grandson, Robert. In the program for the event, Ernest wrote, “The beautiful lacquered cans feature the image of a duck, ‘el pato’ in Spanish. Why? The factory is located next to the LA River, which has now been tamed with concrete, but until 1938 was still subject to periodic flooding. There is an old Mexican proverb – no matter how high the floodwaters get, the duck always floats on top.” And float to the top El Pato did! While they are also well known for producing a variety of products under their Golden State brand name, including mustard, vinegar, and pickled chiles, Ernest explained that it’s Walker Foods’ “iconic El Pato tomato salsa that is the flagship product for the company. Developed in the early 1920s, El Pato was the first canned salsa, the first salsa exported from the United States into Mexico and a product that can be found in nearly every Southern California pantry.”

The iconic El Pato can.

While the origin of shrimp appetizers is earlier than the 1920s, Ernest wrote that “it is during Prohibition that the dish becomes known as a shrimp ‘cocktail’ – a creative way to reuse cocktail stemware licitly.” In trying learn more about the origins of the shrimp cocktail, I found Nick Kindelsperger’s wonderfully researched article that ran in the Chicago Tribune. Remember when just a paragraph ago I said that members of our staff would willingly take shots of Ernest’s cocktail sauce? Well it turns out that not everyone is a fan…and I’d go as far as to say that it’s because they’ve never had it made with El Pato!  Kindelsperger writes that food icon James Beard “referred  to cocktail sauce as the ‘red menace’… His disdain is palpable, as he describes it as ‘a dreadful invention loaded with tomato and garlic and onion that, to my mind, is the worst thing that ever happened to the oyster.” Wait a minute. The oyster? When did the oyster creep into this story? Well, it turns out that the precursor to the shrimp cocktail was the oyster cocktail. Kindelsperger goes on to share the ways in which he traced various origin stories based in 1860s San Francisco to the dish, from a miner who accidentally dipped an oyster in ketchup to a actual cocktail drink where small oysters were placed in a goblet or beer glass, covered with their liquor and mixed with salt, pepper, ketchup, a dash of Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces, vinegar, and maybe even a pinch of horseradish.

As oysters declined in number and prices rose around the end of the 19th century, Kindelsperger notes that modern freezing technology enabled shrimp to become more widely consumed. According to IntraFish, a major source of  news and intelligence for seafood, fisheries, and aquaculture, shrimp continues to dominate the US seafood consumption charts to this day, with 4.6 pounds of shrimp consumed per-person in America in 2018 (salmon came in second at 2.55 pounds per person, and oysters didn’t even make the top ten).

Out of curiosity, I went back to a familiar resource from the Homestead’s collection, The Book of Can Cookery, to see if they included a recipe. Sure enough, published in 1928, I found one for a Grapefruit and Shrimp Cocktail. Moreover, it suggests that you serve it “in small cocktail glasses.” Kindelsperger explains that “the late 19th and early 20th century happen to coincide with the era when people loved to affix the word cocktail to all sorts of objects. That’s when women started wearing cocktail dresses to go to cocktail parties, where they listened to cocktail pianists and set their cocktail glasses on cocktail tables. Considering all of this, the obvious logical leap is that cocktail sauce, and thus the oyster cocktail and shrimp cocktail, got its name because it was served at one of these events.”

Shrimp cocktail recipe from The Book of Can Cookery.

So where does this leave us? Bragging rights for California for inventing some form of the precursor to the shrimp cocktail, and for Los Angeles for providing an ingredient that takes this nostalgic dish up a big notch. Enjoy Ernest’s recipe, and experiment with El Pato in other dishes you make. At 79¢ per can, you can’t go wrong. Here are links to the El Pato Shrimp Cocktail recipe, along with another that Ernest loved: El Pato Capirotada, a Mexican bread pudding.

The El Pato Shrimp Cocktail in all its glory! (It didn’t last long…)

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