Route 66 food history:  Chicago’s Shrimp de Jonghe

Hello again, fellow roadies!  Here it is October and autumn.  Are you missing the Route 66 road trips already?  You shouldn’t be: road trips are still in season here and autumn color is plentiful on the northern part of the route, though not quite yet (no decent overnight chill yet to prompt the color change, darn it; but it’s coming).  Never fear, we’ll keep you busy and entertained:  it’s time for another installment of foodie fun on the route!

We do love history on this blog, and we see no reason food history shouldn’t be included.  Lucky you:  I’ve just researched the oldest known recipe that originated in Chicago.  It’s more than 120 years old, and its history dates back to – wait for it – the 1893 Columbian Exposition, without which we wouldn’t have the lovely Classical style original Art Institute of Chicago building that stands right at the Gateway to Route 66 at Jackson Boulevard and Michigan Avenue.  The great Chicago architect Daniel Burnham was, of course, director of construction and the man most responsible for organizing that world’s fair and getting it built, and he chose the architects of that building – Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, the successors of Boston architect H.H. Richardson.

Why do we mention that?  Well, you could call this Six Degrees of Daniel Burnham:  there are so many things in Chicago that tie directly or indirectly to Burnham and/or to the buildings he designed – several of which are at or very near the Gateway to Route 66 – that even though he had no hand in designing some of them, he can still be tied to them.  And, through him and his buildings, to Route 66 because of its starting point at Jackson and Michigan.  Which brings us to restaurateur Henri de Jonghe and his famous shrimp.

Chicago-style Shrimp de Jonghe in individual ramekins

Chicago-style Shrimp de Jonghe, laced with butter, garlic and sherry, in individual ramekins

The dish

Burnham didn’t play any part in creating Shrimp de Jonghe – that was Belgian-born Henri de Jonghe’s and, possibly, his chef Emile Zehr’s doing – but Burnham undoubtedly had numerous opportunities to consume it.  The recipe made De Jonghe immortal in food circles.  Even back in the day, it was a famous dish – so famous that by the mid-1980s, there were still at least a hundred restaurants throughout the Chicago area serving some version of the dish, according to the Chicago Tribune.  It might have fallen out of favor for a while during the era of cuisine minceur, when people other than Julia Child and Jacques Pepin first began to swear off butter and all other rich and tasty things; but Shrimp de Jonghe is still a time-honored dish in Chicago and many other places, if only because it’s worthy of consideration as haute cuisine.  And besides that, it’s a Chicago creation.  We Chicagoans are proud of that.

Ahhhh, Shrimp de Jonghe … what a delightful delicacy.  We’re talking about a dish of succulent shrimp baked in an herb-seasoned and sherry-laced butter sauce and covered in golden brown buttered French bread crumbs (see recipe below).  Magnifique!  It’s the kind of thing that makes you remember happy moments in the past.  I myself had Shrimp de Jonghe at a memorable 16th birthday lunch with my mother and her best friend, who was my godmother, at the long-defunct Café de la Tour in the penthouse of the Outer Drive East building off Lake Shore Drive (it’s the building with the dome over the swimming pool).  We had a window table with a fantastic view of Grant Park stretching out below, and the taste of the dish stuck with me for the rest of my life.

It was one of the signature dishes of De Jonghe’s Restaurant and Hotel.  But let’s back up a bit for the history.

The background

Henri de Jonghe and his siblings – young brothers Charles and Peter and two unnamed sisters (apparently nobody thought it important to record the sisters’ names; typical) – emigrated to Chicago from Belgium about a year before the 1893 Columbian Exposition opened.  They were so successful with their café at the fair that they were able to open a restaurant shortly thereafter in the basement of the Masonic Temple Building on State Street, which was designed by – you guessed it – Burnham & Root, the architectural practice of Daniel Burnham and his partner, John Wellborn Root (see what we mean about six degrees of separation?).

Daniel Burnham circa 1890 - blog

Daniel H. Burnham, circa 1890

Before long, the de Jonghes’ hard work and business acumen allowed them to buy a building and open De Jonghe’s Hotel and Restaurant a few blocks to the south, in the heart of the Loop at 12 E. Monroe St.  The establishment quickly attracted the ‘in’ crowd:  their high-society clientele included the likes of socialite and do-gooder Edith Rockefeller McCormick, Justice Owen Cartwright of the Illinois Supreme Court, and social-set doyenne Bertha Palmer (chairwoman of the Board of Lady Managers for the world’s fair and the wife of Potter Palmer, the real estate baron and owner of the Palmer House hotel) to mention but a few.  And yes, they were all people who knew Daniel Burnham and vice-versa.

De Jonghe’s operated for about 30 years, and the secret recipe – which Henri never shared – was widely copied in fancy restaurants not only in the Midwest but also as far away as New York and San Francisco.  Henri de Jonghe made a fortune from the restaurant and hotel; he retired in his mid-fifties in 1919, before Prohibition really began. Prohibition was a headache Henri didn’t need.  Presumably, his equally diligent and conscientious younger siblings took over.  However, their less-than-careful hotel manager and maitre d’ ran afoul of the dry laws and got the restaurant shuttered by federal judge Adam C. Cliffe in July 1923.  A Chicago Tribune story that month reported that a Prohibition agent calling himself Mr. Johnson, “a traveling man from Boston,” struck up a conversation with hotel manager James T. Hickey, who was also a Boston native.  After a while, Hickey introduced ‘Johnson’ to the head waiter, who “sold him three pint bottles of whiskey at $10 a pint.”  Oops.  A raid ensued, the two employees were arrested, and 30 cases of liquor were seized.  The judge shut down both the restaurant and the hotel.

De Jonghe’s never reopened; thus died a Chicago legend.  Henri himself died in Tucson in 1961 at the ripe old age of 98, taking the secret of the recipe with him.  However, by that time, the dish was quite popular in the city and elsewhere, and many other restaurants quickly produced their own versions.  Shrimp de Jonghe became another Chicago icon, as popular in its day as Italian beef, pan-style pizza, and the ubiquitous Chicago-style hot dog are today.  And though Henri never shared the recipe, his chef, Emile Zehr, might have.  The following recipe is as close as anyone has gotten to the original.

 
Marie’s Chicago-style Shrimp de Jonghe
serves 4

1-½ lbs. of shelled raw Gulf shrimp, 16-20 count size*
1½ qts. cold water
1 thick slice of fresh lemon
½ small onion, sliced
1 celery stalk, trimmed and cut in half lengthwise, then into large chunks
3 black peppercorns, crushed in a mortar
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. + ¼ tsp. sea salt
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted, plus 1 tbsp. extra for buttering the baking pans
1 oz. good dry sherry – fino, manzanilla or amontillado (not cream sherry:  too sweet)
½ tsp. ground savory
2 cloves garlic, minced
⅛ tsp. cayenne pepper, to taste
1½ cups French-style breadcrumbs
3 tbsp. minced flat Italian parsley
1 small shallot, minced
1 tsp. sweet Hungarian paprika

* The larger the shrimp, the better and more appetizing this dish looks and cooks; if you can’t get 16-20 count shrimp, get at least 21-30 count – anything smaller won’t cook properly:  the shrimp will be done long before the bread crumbs are toasted.

  1. Devein the shrimp but leave on the shells.  While you’re doing that, put the water, lemon, onion, celery, peppercorns, bay leaf, and 1 teaspoon of the sea salt into a 3-quart saucepan; twist the lemon in the water to release some of the juice and lemon oil in the peel, then bring the water to a boil.  Add shrimp; cover and simmer for 2 minutes, stirring constantly, just until the shrimp meat begins to turn an opaque white and the shells turn a deeper pink but before the shrimp begin to curl – don’t overcook them!  Remove from heat and drain the shrimp immediately, running them under cool tap water for 30 seconds.  Drain again.
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Allow the shrimp to cool just until you can handle them with your clean bare fingers, and put the peeled shrimp into a large bowl.  Add half of the melted butter to the shrimp and combine with the sherry, ground savory, half the minced garlic, and a pinch of cayenne; toss to mix.
  1. Mix the remaining melted butter and bread crumbs in small bowl.  Stir in the minced parsley, shallot, remaining garlic, paprika, ¼ tsp. sea salt, and cayenne. Mix well, then taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary (if you want a tiny bit more cayenne, now’s the time to add it – but remember, this isn’t a hot and spicy dish:  you don’t want the seasoning to overshadow the flavor of the shrimp.  You just need enough to enhance it).
  2. Spoon half of the buttered shrimp mixture into individual buttered au gratin dishes or ramekins (if you don’t have individual porcelain, glass or Corning Ware baking dishes – which are highly recommended – you may also use a buttered porcelain quiche dish or a 1½-quart baking dish).  Spread half of the breadcrumbs across the shrimp; top with remaining shrimp mixture.  Add the remaining breadcrumbs.  Dribble any seasoned butter remaining in the bowl on top of the crumbs   Bake until breadcrumbs are a light golden brown, about 7 to 10 minutes.  Serve immediately.

Wine suggestion:  A dry Alsatian Riesling would be perfect.  The other choice is a good Spanish fino or semi-dry amontillado sherry on the rocks instead (never cook with a wine that’s not good enough to drink, and NEVER use so-called cooking sherry).  Enjoy!

Until next time!

 
your own Route 66 chef,
Marie

 

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