What the hell was shrimp wiggle?

Photo: Aimee Levitt
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There’s a new edition of Joy of Cooking out next month. It contains 600 brand new recipes for things that modern Americans actually eat. Unfortunately, even in a book with more than 4,000 recipes, some of the old dishes had to go, and the one singled out in the press release as an example of progress caught our collective eye: shrimp wiggle.

This made me sad. To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what exactly shrimp wiggle was, but the name, to me, was absolutely delightful. It conjured up images of happy 1920s ladies driving around in roadsters, their bobbed hair waving in the breeze, and someone named Mildred hanging onto her hat as she bounces in the rumble seat. They’re sneaking off to a tearoom for a ladies’ luncheon, or maybe they’ll be hanging out in Dorothy’s living room, their girdles loosened and stockings rolled down, passing around an illicit bottle of sherry. What I’m saying is, shrimp wiggle sounds fun. It sounds cheerful. It sounds like the sort of food women ate when they were by themselves and had no one else to please.

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I turned to my trusty 2006 edition of Joy, which still spells ceviche as “seviche,” just as I imagine Mildred and Dorothy and their chums would have done. It had shrimp wiggle, billed as a classic that went all the way back to the original edition in 1931. Which makes sense: Irma S. Rombauer, the book’s original author, was a well-to-do St. Louis lady who probably attended a lot of ladies’ luncheons before the double-whammy of the stock market crash and the death of her husband forced her to write a cookbook to earn her living. Since Irma had never really cooked before, she solicited recipes from her friends.

Shrimp wiggle is at the end of the appetizer chapter, in the section of things eaten on toast. This includes rarebit, which I happen to adore. Shrimp wiggle has a family relationship to rarebit in that it has a roux-based sauce. In theory, you could begin toasting some flour in melted butter, add some milk, and then decide in which direction you’d rather go. But while for rarebit, you add cheese and beer, for shrimp wiggle you add clam juice and ketchup (spelled “catsup”), and then shrimp and thawed frozen peas and maybe a little lemon juice and sherry if you’re feeling frisky.

There’s nothing in the recipe that indicates why it’s called a “wiggle.” There are a number of theories. One is that shrimp “wiggle” when they’re still alive. (This comes from Manifold Destiny: The One! The Only! Guide to Cooking on Your Car Engine! by Bill Scheller and Chris Maynard.) Another is that shrimp wiggle when they’re tossed into a hot pan (Shrimp: A Global History by Yvette Florio Lane). “The reason for the name is not known,” claimed the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “although some sources say ‘wiggle’ is a nod to the ease and quickness with which the dish is made.” (Older cookbooks also emphasized that it was a quick and simple meal.) A final theory, proposed by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, is that back in the day, around the turn of the century, female college students kept chafing dishes, heated with Sterno, in their rooms and would make quick meals on them that they called “wiggles.” Eventually, gatherings to consume these meals also became known as “wiggles.” After graduation, many women took chafing dish cuisine with them into life. This is the theory I like best, mostly because the idea of food consumed late at night in a dorm room with a group of friends all in their pajamas evokes the same spirit of women eating only to please themselves.

“Simply on account of a ‘shrimp wiggle’ one girl has been expelled from the State Normal school, two other are under suspension and three more on probation,”the Portsmouth, Ohio, Times reported in 1911. “When it is made at midnight, in the secrecy of a dormitory room… it is a feast for goddesses.”

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A dorm-room chafing dish feast at Smith College, 1912
Photo: Smith Collection/Gado (Getty Images)

Naturally I had to make shrimp wiggle for myself. The original shrimp wiggle recipes most likely made use of canned shrimp mixed with some sort of cream soup, but the Joy recipe was a bit more refined, maybe because it was in a cookbook for grown-ups. (It’s also possible—no, probable—that the tastebuds of Irma Rombauer and her friends had evolved since they’d gained access to better ingredients and actual stoves.) It would have been difficult to make this recipe in a dorm room. It called for fresh ingredients, namely chopped onions, butter, milk, and, naturally, shrimp. I decided to do the thing properly and prepare toast baskets, slices of white bread buttered on both sides, forced into muffin cups, and toasted in the oven. (Okay, I liked the ridiculousness of it, too.) I also added a teaspoon of Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry because even though it was only “suggested,” I was sure it was what Irma would have wanted.

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A model demonstrates a newfangled electric chafing dish, ca. 1910
Photo: Chris Hunter (Getty Images)

I chopped and stirred and simmered for about 15 minutes. It wasn’t difficult, but it definitely required more effort than heating up a can of soup or a frozen pizza. I did a little shrimp wiggle dance as I cooked. At the end of it, I had a glutinous pinkish mass in a saucepan decorated with pops of green from the peas. I arranged them in the toast baskets and tried to make them look pretty before I photographed them for posterity. The pink and green combination was what I imagine a woman of an earlier era would have deemed “attractive.” (One of my very favorite details from Laura Shapiro’s excellent culinary history Perfection Salad is that women at the turn of the 20th century enjoyed eating theme luncheons and dinners dyed to match their club colors. They were the ones who thought cream sauce made food “attractive.”)

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Then I tasted it. It was… not good. The bites with shrimp were alright, mostly, I think, because of the shrimp, but the sauce didn’t taste like much of anything, despite the ketchup and the clam juice. It also reminded me how much I’ve always hated peas. My partner, Jeff, had been willing to taste it, but as soon as he saw the finished product, he insisted that I go first. After a single dainty bite, he said, “Well, I can see why this didn’t make the cut.”

I posted a picture on Facebook and asked friends and family if they could identify it. Guesses ranged from chicken pot pie to lobster Newberg to “shrimp chips & Velveeta with peas?” to “shit on a shingle.” One friend who I’d told about the project correctly identified it as shrimp wiggle, but no one else believed this was an actual dish, and two people—both writers of fiction—declared her a creative genius.

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So, okay, maybe the time for shrimp wiggle has passed. And, to be fair, a century is an awfully long time for a mediocre dish to survive, especially when the need for it, and also the original method for cooking it, are both obsolete. But I’m still a bit sad that shrimp wiggle has been retired, at least from Joy. It says a lot about the world Joy came from, and where American cooking was in 1931. Food is the most tangible connection we still have to the past and to that world.

I won’t mourn shrimp wiggle too much, though, because the name is far better than the actual dish. Also, there’s another old-fashioned dish that has survived into the new edition of Joy that is far more deserving and should be made by everyone: apple dumplings. They are a lot more work than shrimp wiggle, but when you taste them, you will understand why people loved them so much—and it has nothing to do with convenience and everything to do with the magical combination of butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, and pastry dough. I would like to imagine that the ladies in the roadster picked daintily at their shrimp wiggle before diving whole-heartedly and face-first into their apple dumplings.

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About the author

Aimee Levitt

Aimee Levitt is associate editor of The Takeout.