The late James Beard, considered by many to be the godfather of American cuisine, once noted that the cocktail party is "not a formal affair; it is as democratic as the subway." And Beard knew that better than anyone. Around 1940, he played a crucial role in making the cocktail party an American institution when he started his New York catering business and published his first cookbook, called Hors d'Oeuvre and Canapés. His timing was perfect. In the years following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, New York's social set threw about 250 cocktail parties a day in Manhattan's Upper East Side alone. Cocktail parties of that era continue to set the standard for glamorous, yet easy, entertaining.
We've taken tips from Beard's book and updated some of his recipes to create a selection of delicious appetizers that have nostalgic charm but still appeal to modern palates. And these recipes live up to Beard's timeless advice: "Nothing but the best is good enough for friends."
Because many cocktail foods can be prepared in advance, this is low-key entertaining at its best. A party featuring a variety of finger foods-enough to make a full meal-and drinks for a dozen guests is far easier to pull off than, say, a formal dinner for six.
Cocktail Supper (Serves 12)
Many of these recipes can be prepared in advance. For our Cocktail Supper Countdown guide, click here.
Happy Hour Tips
Beard's book, still in print, is loaded with solid advice on food and party-giving. Some of his wisdom seems dated today, such as his admonition to "have plenty of cigarettes, and not only your own brand." But many of his tips still ring true.
·Innovative finger foods, "which, with their savory qualities or salty tang . . . stimulate the taste buds of the tongue to a point that makes the succeeding courses seem much more enjoyable."
·Serve a mix of cold and hot dishes, contrasting temperatures are just as important as the interplay of different tastes and textures.
·For cold appetizers, choose deviled eggs, stuffed tomatoes, sliced meats, variously flavored cheese balls, and cornucopias of salami slices filled with cream cheese and Parmesan cheese.
·Canapés (with a bread or crust base) should be simply spread with flavored butter or meat paste, and topped with sardines, pieces of lobster, or diced meat.
·Hot appetizers included sandwiches, such as his mini "cocktail hamburger." Other hot appetizers were pastry shells or toast rounds baked with crab, shrimp, olive, cheese, or meat; vegetable or meat fritters; croquettes; pastry turnovers; and brochettes.