In March, I was invited to speak at the Newberry Library about Midwestern food. I was happy to oblige, because this is a topic that is dear to my heart but also something about which there are many misconceptions.
The ethnic makeup of the Midwest is stunningly varied. In the 1800s in particular, people flooded in from dozens of countries, bringing interesting foods and traditions. From pasties in Michigan to bratwurst in Wisconsin, Italian beef in Chicago to barbecue in Missouri. Then there are the indigenous foods, such as wild rice, pecans, common beans, and, of course, maize/corn.
In addition to these are the foods created by imaginative chefs, who were already multiplying in the 1800s. One fabulous dish that few realize is actually a local classic is Shrimp de Jonghe. The restaurant at Chicago’s De Jonghe’s Hotel was fabulously popular from the 1890s to the 1920s. The De Jonghe family had emigrated from Belgium in 1891, and it was Henri de Jonghe who was credited with the shrimp dish that continues to appear on menus both in and far from the city of its birth. (Though it is likely that the hotel’s chef, Emile Zehr, had a hand in developing the dish.) It surprises many when they learn that this lovely, garlicky dish arose in the Heartland.
Also worth noting is that it gives some idea how remarkably transportation had improved by the late 1800s. Because shrimp are extremely perishable. They die when taken out of the water and decay quickly once dead. It wasn’t until the invention of refrigerated train cars that it was possible to speed this delicate creature to distant markets. Today, U.S. is both the largest producer of shrimp and the largest consumer. Americans love shrimp, downing hundreds of millions of pounds a year. Of aquatic comestibles, only canned tuna outranks shrimp in quantities consumed in the U.S. The recipe below offers you the opportunity to be among those who are elevating those statistics.
Shrimp de Jonghe
1-1/4 lb. uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined
10 Tbs. butter
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 Tbs. shallots, finely chopped
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbs. dry sherry
1 or 2 dashes hot pepper sauce or cayenne pepper
1/2 cup fine bread crumbs
1/4 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F, checking first to make sure one of the shelves is in the center.
Butter a shallow, 1-quart baking dish—or, if you have them, several individual-sized baking dishes.
Blanch the shrimp in boiling water for 30 seconds, then drain them in a colander. Run them under cold water until cool (to stop cooking).
Soften the butter with a fork. Beat in the garlic, shallots, and salt. When thoroughly blended, add the remaining ingredients (except the shrimp) and blend well. (If you make a large amount of this–say double or triple the recipe–you could do all this in a food processor.)
If the shrimp have not dried sufficiently in the colander, pat dry. Then, arrange the shrimp in a single layer in the baking dish or dishes. Dot/spread the butter-and-crumb mixture over the shrimp, making sure that all shrimp have at least some of the mixture on it.
Bake until shrimp are fully cooked and the topping has become lightly brown, about 15 minutes. Serves 4 as a main course or 6 to 8 as an appetizer.