Shrimp Louis (pronounced “Looey” and sometimes spelled Louie) has been a West Coast classic for more than a hundred years. It was originally a crab salad, probably created to showcase the Pacific Northwest’s famous Dungeness crabs. Beyond that, its origins are not clear, though there are many claims to its invention.
Louis Davenport opened Davenport’s restaurant in Spokane, Washington in 1890, and his menu featured luxury items like caviar, fresh crab and lobster. In 1914, he opened the Davenport Hotel, which subsequently hosted movie stars like Clark Gable, celebrities like Amelia Earhart, royalty and nearly every 20th century American president. The Davenport is still in business and it has served a lobster or crab Louis since opening day. The hotel speculates that Edward Mathieu, the Davenport’s executive chef from 1917 to 1947, created the Louis dressing. He included a recipe in his autobiography, The Life of a Chef.
But both Mr. Davenport and his chef lived in San Francisco before moving to Spokane. According to Clarence Edward’s 1914 guide to San Francisco restaurants, The Elegant Art of Dining, the menu at Solari’s restaurant offered a Crab Louis. And Victor Hirtzler, a chef at the landmark St. Francis Hotel in the early 1900s, listed a recipe for Crab Meat a la Louise in a 1919 hotel cookbook. San Francisco’s Palace Hotel claims to have offered Crab Louis, described as “a crab cocktail with Thousand Island dressing”, on its menu since the late 1800s.
And there are still more claims of origin. The Food Lover’s Companion suggests that the dish could have originated in 1914 at the Olympic Club, a turn of the century hotel and speakeasy in Seattle, Washington. (The Olympic is now a health club, and smoothies have replaced Louies.) The Neighborhood Cookbook, compiled by the Portland (Oregon) Council of Jewish Women in 1912, lists the dish. Interestingly, Evan Jones reports in his culinary history, American Food, that James Beard, an Oregon native, encountered “the finest Louis I have eaten” at Portland’s Bohemian Restaurant at the start of World War I. Other experts speculate that what some call “the king of salads” is named for France’s King Louis XIV, a fabled eater.
As to why shrimp has become a common replacement for crab, most authorities guess that it is to make the salad more affordable, and to make it available when crab is out of season. And as to similarities between the Louis dressing and its East Coast cousin, Thousand Island dressing, while both are pink and share similar ingredients, Louis dressing is smoother, less sweet and has more of a tangy kick.
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