Prawn cocktail, as it was originally known, was an appetizer of cold boiled shrimp arranged dangling around the rim of a cocktail glass. In the center of the glass, atop a bed of shredded lettuce, was a dip for the shrimp, later known as cocktail sauce. The creator of this dish was Britain’s flamboyant celebrity chef Fanny Cradock, who rose to prominence in the 1950s following the end of World War II. After beginning her career as an anonymous restaurant critic, Fanny wrote a food column for the Daily Telegraph from 1950 to 1955 under the title Bon Viveur. The column was written in concert with Major Johnnie Cradock, who played the part of her hen-pecked, bumbling, and perhaps tipsy husband. The Major was Fanny’s fourth serious romantic attachment, but they never married because a previous husband, who was Catholic, would not grant her a divorce.
As her fame increased, Fanny and Johnnie began offering cooking demonstrations in theaters throughout England. Fanny would cook enormous dishes which were then served to the audience. She eventually was picked up by the BBC, where she enjoyed 20 years of successful programming, cementing her reputation as the foremost food celebrity of her day. She was a colorful, combative personality who wore heavy makeup and sometimes cooked in chiffon ball gowns without the customary apron. Her approach to food was exotic for its time, emphasizing French and Italian cuisine over British. Her admiration for Auguste Escoffier, and her efforts to introduce Escoffier’s techniques to English housewives, led her to give many of her recipes French names. And she is credited with popularizing pizza in Britain. As for British cuisine, she famously declared that there was no such thing: “Even the good old Yorkshire pudding comes from Burgundy.”
So it comes as no surprise that Fanny’s cocktail sauce was originally called sauce Marie Rose, a blend of tomatoes, mayonnaise, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice and pepper. In the United States, Thousand Island dressing is a reasonable facsimile. While mayonnaise is an expected cocktail sauce ingredient in Australia, England, Ireland, France and Belgium (Belgians, I should add, often add a dash of whiskey), in Iceland sour cream is essential. And in America the standard ingredients are, in roughly descending proportion, ketchup, horseradish, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce and lemon juice.