Friday, January 18, 2013

No Appetizers, Please

We've made it through the holidays to the austere and dark month of January. Just when the holidays seem to be over we, in fact, have the next wave of food-related events -- the Super Bowl, Valentine's Day, and Mardi Gras take us all the way to Lent. Lent means no more indulgences, right? Oh, wait...that gets us to Easter, Memorial Day cookouts, Fourth of July, and then Labor Day....uh, so really the modern-day food calendar really runs from Halloween to Halloween, right?

For each of the aforementioned occasions, how many times has today's host/hostess asked willing guests to bring an "appetizer?" Sure -- it's the most common answer to the question, "what can I bring?" My most recent meeting with the Bunco group revealed this need -- a snack-type dish to pass and share with hungry Bunco girls. I was more than happy to oblige and at the same time have a reason to multi-task and again crack open the notebook.

Oh, wait. In Grandma's notebook there is not a single mention of the word "appetizer" or "snack". Nor is there a single "munch", "nosh" or "nibble". Nothing.

Technically an appetizer is something served before a meal to stimulate one's appetite but then I remembered. Mid-Century people did not necessarily snack nor did they eat appetizers before an everyday meal. As a matter of fact, Grandma herself called the act of snacking "lunching" and lunching is NOT something we did as a family. Sure there was an obligatory plate of shrimp or a cheeseball at Christmas but there were no recipes for them. So just how did the modern-day appetizer gain its prominence at America's gatherings?

James Beard, the renowned culinarian, notated ideas for small preparations of food in the 1940s in his books under the guise of "cocktail party food". According to, Beard in his cookbook “Hors d’oeuvre and Canapes” (1940), suggests that American cocktail appetizers evolved from the free nibbles set out on bars. Another theory is that prohibition launched finger foods, driving hard liquor out of the saloons in to the homes. But by the 1940's a whole new world of possibilities opened up. There were stuffed mushroom caps, numerous ways to stuff hard-boiled eggs, plus stuffed cucumber rings, artichoke buds, stuffed tomatoes and even stuffed dill pickles. This created a need for handy, smart snacks to soak up the booze.

In the 1950's cream cheese and sour cream based dips and spreads (French Onion anyone?) came on to the scene and were de rigueur along with the classic relish tray of celery, olives, and pickles. Did Grandma herself throw cocktail parties? I do not know. If she did, something close to the above offerings was probably served in the spirit of the current trends.

So today when we are talking chili con queso in a crock pot, pigs in a blanket, chicken satay, and antipasto plates it's an interesting commentary on our modern lifestyle. In some ways we have shifted from structured meals to finger foods. This type of of nibble-based entertaining I would guess is far more common than a traditional multi-course dinner party. Blame it on our television and automobile culture but the lowly appetizer has indeed evolved in this country since the 1940s.

Fast forward to today --  I did manage to put together an appetizer for the monthly meeting of the Bunco group. The recipe was not written down but one that I remembered my friend Bonny serving -- a layered dip with cream cheese, pesto, and toasted almonds served with wheat crackers on the side. All the girls that night brought snack foods that were not a prelude to any kind of meal but were a meal within themselves. Yes, we girls were lunching. That being said, appetizers are not in Grandma's notebook, but they are thoroughly modern.