As the price of prawns rises like a reindeer pulling a sleigh, and the Sydney fish market prepares for a 36-hour trading marathon leading up to Christmas, it’s a good time to contemplate the prawn cocktail.
The seafood cocktail’s popularity peaked in the 1970s. It was on the menu for the Ladies’ Night on 26 June 1970 at the Alouette Restaurant, 383 George St ($12.50 a double: mains included T-bone Mexicain – Grilled T-bone with Mexican Sauce; Chicken Monte Carlo – Half Chicken covered with Cheese and Bacon; Fish du jour – Grilled or fried); at the Royal Australian Artillery Fourty Fourth Annual Gunner Dinner, School of Artillery, North Head, Manly on 7 August 1971 (‘Queensland Prawn Cocktail’); at the lunch given by Sir Ralph and Lady Richardson for the cast of ‘Lloyd George knew my Father’ at the Sebel Town House on October 4 1973 (‘Avocado with a filling of Evans Head King Prawns’); at a banquet held at the Opera House on November 12 1976 ‘to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of Transfield’ (‘Avocado Seafood’); at the Hyatt Kingsgate Hotel on 3 December 1976 there was ‘Shrimp Cocktail Florida’ for the 1976 Bookman’s Award presentation dinner (award given to Beatrice Davis, who set up then headed the editorial department at the publishing firm, Angus and Robertson’s, from 1937-1973: “old A&R authors remember Beatrice in that old Castlereagh Street office (now burnt out), or in the George Street ‘studio’ where the talk and wine were good, and where the food was ‘ambrosial’ as Lady Hasluck described it.”[i]); at a dinner to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s birth at Tattersall’s Club on 16 June 1978.[ii]
The timing of the dinner for Beatrice Davis would have been enormously significant at the time, as she had been sacked from her role as editor at Angus and Robertson in 1973 after nearly 40 years of dedication to the company. Her influence on Australian literature extended beyond the publishing house. She facilitated a literary circle, meetings and journals, and was on the Miles Franklin Award judging panel from its inception in 1957 until 1992. But her style didn’t suit Gordon Barton and Richard Walsh’s new regime at A&R – even the Australian Dictionary of Biography allows that, ‘Her preference was for developing the literary tradition begun in the nineteenth century… Increasingly she avoided the contemporary urban themes favoured by writers like Dymphna Cusack, Ruth Park, D’Arcy Niland, and Kylie Tennant’ and that, ‘In her pursuit of literary quality she would ignore such matters as design, production costs, and marketing’. Nevertheless, the shockwaves from the dethroning of such an influential member of the Sydney publishing scene must have been gigantic.
Beatrice Davis and the ‘70s are long gone. If you’re in the throes of composing your own prawn cocktail, please spare a thought for the times we live in. Australian prawns are deemed ‘sustainable’ – imported prawns are not.
[i] Clipping from SMH 4/12/76 attached to menu
[ii] based on menus held in box: Ephemera – Menus, 1930-1989, State Library, NSW.