Can-do canapes

Canapes can show up the worst aspects of any era

Food
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.

And Beard emphasises the importance of hospitality: visiting a friend who provides a “tray with a choice morsel of cheese, perhaps, and some anchovies fresh from the can or bottle, some fresh green crisp tidbit . . .  some crisp biscuits and an invitation to help oneself” is more pleasurable than a vast formal table where one feels unwelcome. He does not mince words: “Many of the snacks created for such occasions are excellent, and many of them are garbage. One owes it to his guests to know the difference.” “Commercial dips” and “concoctions fashioned with pastry bag and tube on small bits of soggy bread or toast” are “some of the more evil items” and should be “avoided at all costs”. On this I think most will agree. But aspics are “among the most decorative and delightful tidbits you can serve with cocktails”. Yikes.

Beard’s book can be off-puttingly heavy on stuffed eggs and rolled-up slices of meat. Shoving half a hard-boiled egg into your mouth while trying to have a conversation seems liable to end in disaster. (A period drinking counterpart to his book is David Embry’s The Fine Art Of Mixing Drinks [1948], which also seems to be out of print.) But then in American Cookery he (perhaps surprisingly) tells us, when discussing crudités, that “Americans are greater consumers of raw vegetables than any other people     . . . vegetables have become an important part of the cocktail hour”. Sandwiches served at parties should be “commanding in appearance and richly attired in a simple way . . . thin enough to be almost revealing, well filled”.

As Beard says, “to the average American hostess, practically everything from a potato chip to a whole six-rib roast of beef comes under the term hors d’oeuvre”. But bear in mind that this type of eating “grew out of the Prohibition era and out of the decline in entertaining with pomp and servants” (my italics). Which means that really anything which involves investing in 100 shot glasses or ceramic spoons should be automatically excluded. So here are some canapés of choice which are low-stress, seem to go down well and are not too fancy: nuts roasted with rosemary, a little bit of butter or oil, salt, brown sugar, and paprika. (Beard amusingly calls nuts “cocktail accessories”.) Cheese straws — homemade. Small fresh flatbreads — homemade — with whatever nice casual thing you like — Claudia Roden’s Moroccan mashed carrot salad is extremely good. For guacamole, my Hot Tip is to skin and deseed the tomatoes before chopping them, and mash it with a wooden spoon rather than put it ina food processor. Chicory leaves are good as a base for a canapé — crumbled blue cheese walnut and ripe pear in the scoop of a leaf give the effect of a very nice late-autumn or winter salad. Smoked salmon and butter on brown bread is pleasing to very many, but home-made gravadlax on pumpernickel with mustard sauce is, I think, almost nicer. I’m keen on kuku sabzi, the Iranian frittata dense with green herbs, cut into cubes.

James Beard can have the last word: “The cocktail party no longer means a bottle of gin, a can of sardines and a packet of potato chips from the corner grocery.” But ultimately the most important thing is “a hospitable, and to say the least, fairly sober host”.