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Can-do canapes
December 2017 / January 2018

Counsel of despair: Everything in aspic

Canapés can show up the worst aspects of any era. Tiny sausages on sticks too hot to eat without burning the roof of your mouth take you to children’s birthday parties. I feel sure that the miniaturised burgers and cones of fish-and-chips of today will eventually look as dated as the cheese-and-pineapple of Abigail’s Party, or the pimiento-stuffed olives in vinegar which in that play are foreign and suggestive of pretension: “I like olives and that is 25 per cent of the assembled company.” Mad Men’s Betty Draper (the petulant, self-absorbed wife of Don) twice serves rumaki at parties — bacon wrapped around pieces of chicken liver and water chestnut, a pretend Polynesian dish which I don’t think made it to this side of the Atlantic. Elsewhere in Mad Men, Pete Campbell is given a chip-and-dip plate as a wedding present, and finds it so emasculating that he childishly swaps it for a gun. Bacon-wrapped snacks, according to James Beard’s American Cookery (1972), come from the 1920s, robust morsels invented to stand up to bathtub gin martinis. “Good bathtub gin was not without its merits, but it needed food to keep one in shape for the second and third drink.”

The cover (pictured) of Fresh Ways with Snacks and Canapés (1988) — a book which I have never cooked from — shows an array of toasts glazed with blankets of aspic, under which lie slices of egg, asparagus tips, and things which disconcertingly we can’t actually see. (Inside, the recipe tells us it’s slices of duck and chicken.) The preface to the recipe for Chicken Canapés doubles as a short poem about despair.  (I imagine this in the voice of Frank O’Hara, perhaps from a lost volume, Snack Poems.)

Makes: 12 canapés
Working time: about 1 hour
Total time: 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Admittedly this includes cooling and setting time. But it does not include the time to make the aspic:

Makes: about 90 cl
Working time: about 45 minutes
Total time: 2 hours and 45 minutes

For 12 canapés. Which will be eaten in about 30 seconds. The usual depressing ratio of time-to-cook vs. time-to-eat is vastly exaggerated.

I’ve turned to James Beard’s 1940 Hors D’Oeuvres and Canapés — his first book, which seems to be available only second-hand. He does actually mention the war: the “conditions in Europe” are making it harder to get “the delicacies formerly considered necessary for a well-stocked larder”. He is extremely sensible on many points and also very funny — “Heaven help the hostess who gives men drippy or sliding sandwiches!” Unfortunately he — or his publisher — likes the word “tidbits”, which M.F.K. Fisher once pointed out was really a euphemism — the word titbits being too scandalous for Americans. But he has some of the best advice: “Do not attempt great variety. Content yourself with a few things well done and in sufficient quantity”. Caterers, I’ve been told, plan for six canapés a head.
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