Today, the terms appetizer and hors d’oeuvres are used interchangeably and refer to a small dish served before a main course or meal.
Prior to the late 19th century, however, the term appetizer referred to a food item — liquid or solid — taken before a meal to aid in the digestion of the meal. These could be anything from small bites of meat or fish to parsnips and carrots.
Then in 1896, a Virginia newspaper published a short article titled “A Little French Lesson” that included a definition of hors d’oeuvres as “light dishes as appetizers served after the soup." This would be the second course of a traditional 5-course meal and the second or third in a traditional 7-course meal.
As the new century unfolded, appetizers began appearing on elegant and aristocratic menus across the United States and Europe. Antipasto was a common appetizer and might have included sardines, olives, pickles, or radishes — still not far from the early definition. Other options of the time were anchovies on slices of tomatoes, buttered toasts topped with herring roe fried with bacon, cheese “paste” served on rounds (crackers) or caviar on toast.
During the Flapper era of the 1920s, meatballs in rich sauces, herbed-stuffed clams, shrimp with wine and garlic and chunks of cheese began to grace the entertainment scene. The Great Gatsby himself might have even offered smoked salmon tartare.
Travel forward a few decades and the world of appetizers becomes more accessible to the modern entertainer. The 1950s ushered in an era of convenience foods that made the life of the housewife and home cook simpler. We were basking in a post-war glow where convenience was the wave of the future and women loved it.
Simple appetizers included salted almonds, blue cheese-stuffed celery, marinated mushrooms, garlic olives, deviled eggs and a variety of “dunks” — what we call dips today. Hostesses with more elaborate tastes might have opted for filled cream puffs, Rumaki and chicken liver pâté.
Cream puffs were so popular that Betty Crocker began selling a cream puff mix in 1957. Small puffs were filled with whipped cream or pudding. Chicken salad was often a choice for a more hearty puff while bite-sized puffs could be filled with cheese and bits of bacon. Canapés were among the most popular because they could easily be passed on silver trays by servers.
Punch was the beverage of choice for weddings and parties, served in crystal punch bowls with sometimes ornate punch cups. Sherbet punch is the simplest and most diverse of the popular punches of the time. One quart of sherbet floated in a mixture of a 2-liter bottle of ginger ale or lemon-lime soda, and one 64-oz bottle of fruit juice will give you enough punch to fill a vintage punch bowl.
For a mid-century modern flair, try these puff, canapés and punch recipes, reprinted from 1950s editions of The Southern Illinoisan newspaper.