Friday, May 18, 2018

Viva Las Vegas, Maryellen! Plus, the History of the Shrimp Cocktail

There’s more to Sin City than meets the eye!

A few weeks ago on Instagram, I posted a picture of Maryellen on a beach chair and asked everyone where they thought she might have traveled off to. I bet no on guessed Las Vegas! 

Las Vegas is a post World War II boomtown that really came into its own in the 1950’s and 60’s, partially thanks to the mob and nuclear weapons. I wasn’t ever particularly interested in visiting because I’m not one for gambling or the bombastic shows the city’s famous for, but when a research trip for work had me going there, I figured I’d make the most of it. 

As it turns out, Vegas is a really interesting city with some cool entertainment, food, crime, and nuclear history. There was so much to see and do that I actually feel like I need to go back to make sure I actually see it all! Since it’s not usually a city that’s well known for anything other than Elvis impersonators and slot machines, I thought it might be fun to show you all a little bit of Vegas beyond the Strip… and some of the Strip, too! 

Now, fair warning, the content of some of this post is a little more murder and mayhem than some past places we’ve visited because Vegas was basically founded by the Mob, and one of the museums we visited goes into that history pretty explicitly. There’s also going to be a little discussion of gambling – hard not to get into that when talking about Vegas! – so if any of that isn’t in your (or your kids’!) taste, feel free to skip this one. Let’s say it leans a little more PG than most of my previous posts.

Las Vegas was first settled in 1905, but remained a pretty small town until after World War II. The construction of the Hoover Dam, which began in 1931, led to its first real population boom and helped protect the city from feeling the effects of the Great Depression. Interestingly, although Nevada was the last western state to outlaw gambling, it was officially banned in 1910. This was overturned on a local level in 1931, after mobsters had begun building casinos and venues for show girls to entertain the largely male population. 

The first hotel opened on what would become the Las Vegas Strip in 1941, but it wasn’t until 1946 that the first mob run hotel and casino would open. Howard Hughes entered the scene in 1966, and the city continued to spiral and grow out of control into the 1980’s. As the World War II generation began to age out, a new era of mega resorts took control of the city. It was hit badly during the 2008 recession, and recently was the site of the worst mass shooting in American history. Despite all its recent struggles, the city remains a favorite destination for tourists around the world, and has a distinct community of locals with strong ties to local businesses and the city’s colorful history. 

So, why Maryellen? As Vegas really exploded onto the scene in the post war period and has a lot of specifically 1950’s flair (especially given the enthusiasm for Elvis), I figured she was a logical traveling companion for this particular adventure. 

The best place to get up close and personal with the seedier history of the city is the Mob Museum, opened in 2012 located in downtown Las Vegas. If you take a car, there’s a good chance you might also pass by the pawn shop on Pawn Stars on your way there, along with tons of wedding chapels. 

Admission to the museum is a little on the pricey side, but everything’s pricey in Vegas and I think the museum’s a worthwhile enough stop to justify it.

The museum has three floors of exhibits, with the top explaining the origins of organized crime in America, the second connecting that history more specifically to Vegas, and the bottom floor explaining what organized crime is like today, again taking the focus much more broadly and discussing world wide issues. 

The museum is pretty immersive, and even has a table where you can “gamble” while answering questions about Vegas and organized crime trivia.

One of the stand out artifacts in their collection is the reassembled bricks from the wall where the St. Valentine’s Massacre was carried out. It’s pretty morbid, but also really fascinating because the case led to the first use of ballistics to identify weapons used in a crime. Law enforcement trivia was sprinkled throughout the museum, showing how investigators were able to create new techniques and practices to catch criminals red handed.

The rooms discussing Vegas’s specific mob ties were especially interesting, and very well themed. We had a chance to talk to one of the museum’s interpreters who told us all about the life of Bugsy Siegel, a mobster many of you might recognize as the inspiration for Moe Greene from The Godfather. Although other hotels had already been set up on what would become the Strip and mobsters were already involved with those, Siegel opened The Flamingo, which became the first of many mob owned and operated hotels and casinos in Vegas. 

Unfortunately for Siegel, he was a better hitman than businessman, and he was murdered in 1947 after sinking too much money into his hotel. The crime is still officially unsolved.

The Vegas section also showed interesting artifacts related to how casinos tried to prevent cheating, and how gamblers tried to get around those techniques, which was pretty interesting, as well as the influence of colorful characters like Howard Hughes. Hughes’s life was parodied in the classic episode of The Simpsons “$pringfield”, where the town legalizes gambling to help their failing economy. There was also an interactive slot machine Jenna tried out to learn more mob trivia.

I left the Mob Museum with some conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I wanted to be an FBI agent for most of middle and high school, or at least a person who investigated cold cases, so true crime has always been a big interest for me. Add that with my interest in Prohibition Era gangster history fueled by Boardwalk Empire and Some Like it Hot and this museum scratched a major itch for me, especially since the equally conflicting Museum of Crime and Punishment in DC closed before I was ever able to visit. 

That being said, the museum definitely kind of skirts the line of being a little too excited about gangster history, if you know what I mean. There’s some definite elements of dark tourism here, that morbid curiosity that makes people want to go on Jack the Ripper tours in London or look at shrunken heads in a museum, along with some… not quite idolization of these gangsters, but kind of close? 

I guess the overall feel of the museum was a very tongue and cheek acceptance of Vegas’s dark past, acknowledging and educating the public about the role of the mob in founding the city we know today and definitely making it clear that these were not good people, but also being a little proud of their association with these extremely colorful characters. Elevating hardened criminals into folk heroes isn’t new (Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger are all good examples of this), but it is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, and sometimes leaves visitors with a weird sense of what they should be taking away from the museum and its collections. 

Also, fair warning, the last gallery on the second floor is titled “Greatest Hits”, and is basically just extremely graphic photos and short captions about murders carried out by the mob. Even for someone who really wanted to be a cop and has been exposed to a lot of gruesome stuff through that interest, it was a little much.

Although it’s certainly possible (and probable) there are still criminals involved in Vegas’s big businesses these days, efforts to clean up the city has meant the hotels and casinos have “gone corporate”, as one of our Uber drivers explained to us. This has its tradeoffs: although the city might be more safe now than it was in the 70’s, he made it clear that in his opinion, the locals had it a little easier when the mobs were in charge because enjoying the Strip was more affordable. Mobsters were happy to get people into their casinos with ten dollar steak and egg breakfasts because they knew they were going to make money on the visitors at the tables, while businesses are more interested in charging as much as they can for everything. He explained that modern Vegas history could be divided into before and after real estate mogul Steve Wynn came to town. 

It was a really interesting perspective, and made a couple of my friends and I somewhat seriously consider doing an oral history of Vegas to document that change. The locals we spoke with made it clear that they were a community that genuinely supported each other, abandoning old haunts when new owners showed disrespect towards the institution’s history and supporting businesses that did have a better appreciation for the community. 

Another thing the mob was surprisingly on board with? Desegregation. Las Vegas became a predominantly white city during its boom years in the 1950’s, and all businesses were heavily segregated to appeal to wealthy white visitors. The mob tended to empathize with African and Mexican American residents and workers because as many of them were Jewish or Italian, they understood what it was like to be shunned by “respectable” WASP society. It would take legal action by the NAACP in the 1960’s before the hotels and casinos desegregated fully, but still interesting to see how criminals were more willing to show tolerance to their fellow man… as long as it got them more money. 

Still, it’s hard not to be a little impressed by what “Las Vegas Goes Corporate” means for the city. The modern casinos are all extremely immersive, with interesting hooks to get people to come visit. This can mean anything from fake Parisian streets to gondola rides to a slightly shabby animatronic show about the fall of Atlantis. Also, lots and lots of neon.

Arguably the most famous attraction is the huge water fountains outside the Bellagio, which plays a series of fountain shows themed to music every day and night.

The Bellagio is also home to a botanic garden. The theme rotates throughout the year, and when we were visiting, it was styled as a Japanese garden complete with cherry blossoms.

We were lucky to have a friend who grew up in Vegas to give us some suggestions for restaurants, and our favorite my friends and I tried out was definitely La Comida, a Mexican restaurant in Downtown Las Vegas that had the best burrito I had ever eaten. We liked it so much, we went back a second time.

Downtown Las Vegas has a reputation of being a little seedier than the Strip, but it’s also the historic heart of Vegas. I was surprised when we went to walk down Fremont Street to discover that most of the things I had always thought of as iconically Vegas were here, from the Golden Nugget to Vegas Vic, the famous mascot of the Pioneer Club, which opened in 1942. There were so many neon signs that the street was nicknamed “Glitter Gulch”. 

It looks a lot different than it did in the 1950’s (and the photos and movies I’d seen) because of a massive renovation to Fremont Street which took place in 1995. In an attempt to revitalize the area and compete with the hotels and casinos on the Strip, the street was changed to a semi indoor event space with concert stages, new businesses, and even a zipline course. 

I’ll admit, I sort of didn’t love it. I completely understand the need to revitalize an area, but I’m not one for huge crowds, drunk people, aggressive street performers, or historic buildings getting renovated beyond recognition if it can be helped. It was really surreal walking down the street and recognizing certain images that are now so different. It reminded me a lot of Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, and I was glad I saw it, but also glad to leave. 

Also, disappointingly, Vegas Vic was being repaired, so we didn’t get to see him lit up and gesturing us into the Pioneer Club. Which is for the best, considering the original club closed in 1995 during the renovation. Vic was kept as an iconic symbol of the city and is still maintained, as are a few classic neon signs in the area. Others have been donated to the Neon Museum, a place I really wanted to visit, but which unfortunately requires the purchase of tickets a bit in advance, so my friends and I missed out on a tour. Hopefully next time I’ll be quicker on the draw because I’ve heard only good things.

Another big part of Vegas history with close links to Maryellen’s time period is the Nevada Test Site (NTS), a reservation where nuclear tests were conducted from 1951 to 1992. You can visit NTS yourself, but it’s a bit of a drive from Las Vegas proper, and requires a pretty hard core background check because it’s still a secure government facility. You also can’t take any photos or even bring your cellphone into the building with you. 

If you want to learn the history while enjoying a more relaxed (and camera friendly) environment, check out the National Atomic Testing Museum! It’s a short drive or walk from the strip and is a Smithsonian affiliate museum.

When we visited, we got to take photos with Robby the Robot, who first appeared in 1956’s Forbidden Planet, a science fiction classic that served as one of the inspirations for Star Trek and one of my dad’s favorite movies. Robby went on to appear in many other classic midcentury films and television shows.

You could also pose with a cut out of Miss Atomic Bomb 1957. There were four women that held the title of Miss Atomic Bomb, and was a beauty pageant held in Las Vegas to tie two of their biggest attractions: showgirls, and nuclear weapons. 

Yep, you heard that right. 

Interestingly, although Miss Atomic Bomb 1957 is a really well known photograph of the weirdness of the Atomic era, we don’t actually know anything about the woman herself besides the fact that she was probably a Vegas show girl. If it’s someone you know, the museum would definitely be interested in hearing her story!

The museum’s main exhibits start with a brief discussion of the history of the Manhattan Project, the Trinity Test, the lab at Los Alamos, and President Truman’s role in deciding to drop the atomic bombs on Japan at the close of World War II. This helps provide context as to why NTS became necessary for further atomic testing, which continued into the next galleries. 

Essentially, people began to realize that nuclear testing in the Pacific was poisoning the water and creatures living in it, including fish brought in by trawlers for human consumption, which made moving to a remote area in the desert more appealing. It also – in theory – made it harder for the Russians to see what the Americans were up to.

One of the coolest cases the museum had was a display of the varied ways American popular culture reflected enthusiasm, fear, glorification, and general curiosity about atomic weapons and energy. There were lots of neat artifacts, including a pretty grim Peanuts comic strip, a Superboy comic book, a chemistry set, a cookbook I’ve definitely got to get my hands on, and one really interesting post card. 

Remember how I said Las Vegas’s two main attractions in the 1950’s were showgirls and the nuclear weapons?

It’s because you could actually see the mushroom clouds from Vegas hotels! It was a major selling point of some lounges and skyline bars. They would even send calendars to patrons letting them know when atomic tests would be preformed so they could plan their next visit and watch the mushroom cloud billow up on the horizon.

Now, perhaps unsurprisingly for us, being this close to an atomic test site has had some problems for Vegas locals, namely radiation poisoning and contamination. The museum didn’t spend much time talking about such issues, and instead focused more clinically on the history of the test site, showing examples of the mannequins scientists would use to test the effect of nuclear blasts on civilian sites. 

It explained how concerns about damaging the environment and human populations forced all nuclear testing by the United States, Soviet Union, and United Kingdom to be conducted underground after the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. It traced the history of the site up until the very beginning of the 21st century, highlighting better relations with the Soviet Union and how the site was used for other tests, including NASA and emergency response training.

Overall the exhibits looked a little tired and like they could do with a facelift, but there were some neat interactives that Jenna was happy to test out with Maryellen watching, including one that explained how determinations about storing and disposing of atomic waste are made.

This was another museum that left me with somewhat mixed feelings. Much like the National Air and Space Museum doesn’t like to get too far into political controversy, the National Atomic Testing Museum kind of tried to skirt around the ethics of preforming atomic tests or using nuclear weapons as a deterrent or actual weapon of war. Based on the wear and tear on the exhibits as well as the overall design, I’d guess the exhibits were installed in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s and are probably in need of a refresh, especially in terms of content. Nuclear history can be really complicated to discuss because the feelings about fallout and contamination are often in conflict with people who feel that they kept us safe during the Cold War, and it’s pretty hard to make everyone happy. 

Still, if you’re at all interested in Atomic Las Vegas, this is a definite must see. They have a lot of cool artifacts and really get into the history of the NTS. It’s not too far off the beaten path either (about a ten minute drive from the Strip or Downtown) and the cost of admission is pretty reasonable, especially given other Vegas attractions. 

One final thing before the recipe portion of this post: my favorite stop on the trip! 

My followers on Instagram have probably seen me talking about a big project I’ve been working on about the history and influence of tiki bars. As kitschy and occasionally problematic as they can be, I’ve always really enjoyed the aesthetic, cocktails, and experience of visiting a tiki bar, probably because my parents are really into them too. I’ll be telling you all about that in another post I’ve got in the hopper, but for now, enjoy some pictures from the Golden Tiki in Vegas’s Chinatown!

It’s the newer of the two well known tiki bars in Vegas, and I picked it to visit because Frankie’s is notoriously smoky, and I really can’t do cigarette smoke. The owners are also big Disney fans, so there are a few Disney Easter eggs for the eagle eyed visitor. You have to be over 21 to get in, and they don’t serve food besides Dole Whip (delicious!), but it was well worth the trip, especially because my friends finally got to experience a real tiki bar with me! Now they understand what I mean when I complain about the Mai Tais I’ve had at some of the places we’ve visited in the past. 

Vegas is definitely famous for its food, but can you guess what is possibly the most iconically Vegas dish?

I guess the title of this post is sort of a spoiler, isn’t it? 

The origins of shrimp cocktail are – like most recipes – somewhat murky. It started appearing in cookbooks and at restaurants at the start of the 20th century, and some suggest that the reason it was served in a cocktail glass was to make use of glasses that were otherwise left in cabinets untouched during Prohibition. That could just be a legend though. 

Until frozen shrimp became available in the early 1950’s, shrimp cocktail (and fried shrimp) were treats that could really only be enjoyed by people in coastal areas like California and Florida because there just wasn’t an easy way to import them far inland without them spoiling. It took a while for pricing to stabilize to make frozen shrimp an affordable indulgence, so the dish remained a minor indulgence until the 1970’s. 

This made it a perfect fit for Vegas casinos and hotels, most of which began to offer the dish as a staple of their menus. The most famous shrimp cocktail in Vegas was offered by the Golden Gate Hotel, one of the hotels located on Fremont Street which first opened in 1906, going through a series of renovations and renames until it became the Golden Gate in 1955. This cocktail was famously only fifty cents, and was perhaps unsurprisingly hugely popular. It started a trend of hotels and casinos offering cheap versions of the dish as a way to entice visitors to come spend money at their establishment. 

The Golden Gate shrimp cocktail was served in a 6 ounce glass with no padding. That means it was just shrimp and cocktail sauce. In 1991, the hotel celebrated its 25 millionth shrimp cocktail served, and also had to up the price to ninety nine cents a piece. The price was raised again in 2008 to $1.99, as the hotel was losing over $300,000 on shrimp every year under the old pricing. Sadly, you can no longer indulge in this treat because the restaurant that served it in the hotel closed in 2017. 

On the bright side, making an authentic 1950’s shrimp cocktail sauce is pretty easy. The version I made is a play on a 1956 recipe that only used six ingredients:

Mix one cup of ketchup with a tablespoon of horseradish, a half tablespoon of sugar, a few drops of Tabasco sauce, a 1/2 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce and 1/4 of a teaspoon of salt in a bowl until the ingredients are well combined.

Line cocktail glasses with lettuce and spoon sauce between glasses evenly.

Add shrimp.

And you’re ready to go enjoy a classic 1950’s appetizer! Just be happy shrimp is relatively more affordable and easier to come by no matter where you live compared to Maryellen’s time… although I guess she personally wouldn’t have had a problem, living in Florida and all.

This shrimp cocktail isn’t exactly the same as what you’d be getting at the Golden Gate in 1959 (they’ve never publicly released their recipe for their cocktail sauce), but the sauce is probably pretty darn close. It was tangy and bright, with just enough kick from the horseradish and ketchup to really brighten up the shrimp. It would be a good compliment to other seafood if you’re not a fan of shrimp, or if you’re just trying to find something different to nosh on. 

Of course, you can also buy cocktail sauce premade, but making your own and getting a little inventive with it is super easy and a lot more fun. 

Shrimp cocktail isn’t really a modern menu staple, as it’s become cliché in the minds of a lot of modern restaurateurs, but it’s a tasty, easy way to breathe some life into an appetizer with a fun sauce. It’s also a really easy way to enjoy a taste of history or Las Vegas in the comfort of your own home. 

I hope you enjoyed our not exactly brief look at the various sights and sounds Vegas had to offer! I have to admit, I really didn’t expect to like it as much as I did, but I came away with a genuinely enjoyable experience that I’d happily repeat. There’s also so much I didn’t get to see during our trip: the Hoover Dam, a couple different National Parks managed sites, the Nevada State History Museum, the Neon Museum, just to name a few. I guess it means I’ll just have to go back someday!

And until then, I have this recipe in my back pocket if I ever want to pretend I’m indulging in fifty cent shrimp!


  1. Wow, that was a cram jammed post. It was fun to read about your trip. I guess perhaps I should give it another try. And the shrimp cocktail was delish! It was nice to be able to sample some of your cooking again;)

    1. Glad I had the chance to try it out with you guys! And you should definitely give Vegas another shot if only for the Golden Tiki's mai tais. :)

  2. What an interesting post! I'm allergic to shrimp, so won't be trying those, but I enjoyed the history of Las Vegas. I didn't know it was founded by the mob. What a combination; mobs and nuclear bombs! I've been there once, and did see the Hoover Dam and loved Nevada. I don't gamble though, but I went along on one of hubby's business trips way back in the 80's.

    1. Next time I'm out that way, I definitely would like to see the Hoover Dam. I've heard great things!

  3. Wow, I never was super interested in visiting Vegas (for a lot of the same reasons you listed) and this post definitely has fueled my interest!

    1. Glad to hear it! Hope you enjoy if you head out that way. :)

  4. This is a super post that is so jammed pack with information that I had to read it twice. Super job!

    I am from the generation of Shrimp Cocktails, though I've never been to Vegas there were a few places on the East Coast that offered them on the menu's back in the '60. One of my favorite places was the Pub Tiki (speaking of your article on that subject) in Philadelphia. Sadly it is now closed but every Friday after work for 9 years my now ex husband and I went there for dinner. It was my favorite place ever and your dinner started with a Shrimp Cocktail, followed by an amazing Wedge Salad with secret dressing , then a blazing Polynesian Puupuus and my favorite entree Prime Rib with all the trimmings. You should research that place for part of your article as it was the go to place in Philadelphia. Dinner for two with dessert was less than $20. Here is a link to the front over of the menu:

    My youngest grandson loves shrimp so we always made homemade shrimp cocktails when he comes for a visit. Never saw a 9 year old that could eat a pound of shrimp. lol!

    1. That sounds awesome! Thanks so much for sharing, I'd definitely like to do some digging.

  5. Love reading your post about Vegas and glad you enjoyed your stay there! Thanks for showing the different sides of Vegas :)

    1. Thanks for all your great recommendations! I can't wait to go back someday. :D