Every time I’m asked to bring an appetizer to a dinner party I think of Marlo Thomas. If you’re of a certain age, you might remember her sitcom, “That Girl”, in which she starred as an unmarried, aspiring actress living on her own in New York. As the cute and wholesome Ann Marie, the weekly show offered up lightweight, amusing stories of her struggles chasing her dream in the Big Apple. In one memorable episode, she finds herself the unwitting hostess of an impromptu cocktail party.
Wine and appies- the best way to enjoy them is with my sister!
Dozens of people unexpectedly turn up at her apartment, propelling Ann into a frenzy of appetizer-making madness. As nibblies are quickly devoured, the camera pans to Ann in her tiny kitchen, frantically going through all her cupboards looking for something hors d’oeuvres-ish to feed her ravenous company. All she can find is a jar of peanut butter and a box of Corn Flakes. Desperation begets inspiration; with a miniature knife, Ann dabs a splotch of peanut butter on individual cereal flakes, arranges them on a tray and serves them ‘round. Guests love them, hoovering them off the platter as fast as she can make them. When an impressed guest asks what she calls her delicious appetizer, she hesitates, then with feigned confidence says, “they’re Crispins”.
The “Crispin” episode has stuck with me all these years, and generally resurfaces when it’s my turn to come up with an appetizer for a dinner or cocktail party. Ask me to bring dessert, ask me to bring a salad, but for the love of angels-on-horseback, don’t ask me to bring an appie. I’ll say “yes” because I’m a pleaser, but my inside voice is bleating – alliteratively, as it happens – “Oh, for the love of Martha Stewart… I don’t have the fortitude to fiddle and fuss over one-bite finger foods.”
I am just so darn unimaginative when it comes to nibblies. Not too surprising, really, when I consider what passed for appetizers in our family home: Cheezies. Bugles. Chips – rippled if there was french onion dip to go with. At Christmas, the “fancy appetizer” would be trotted out: warm cream cheese crab dip in a hollowed-out sourdough “bowl”. My mom and dad hosted some great dinner parties and I’m sure the appies they served were more elaborate, but for family gatherings, we could count on the signature green plastic bowl filled with something processed, salty, fattening and addictive.
Fun with finger food!
Knowing it’s inevitable I’ll be tagged with hors d’oeuvres duty occasionally, I make a point of observing what other hosts serve. Based on this extensive research – involving taste tests and presentation – I’m still of the mind that a decent appie requires a level of tinkering that is beyond my patience and interest. I’ve also concluded that sometimes, Cheezies still win out over some of the complicated, time-consuming options. Forthwith, my rating and reviews of eight familiar appetizers.
- The “amuse bouche” spoon. An appie on a ceramic spoon has been trending for the past couple years. Not a fan. They’re so large that it’s awkward to angle the food into one’s mouth without looking like a bass. Then there’s the problem of what to do with the gooey spoon after you’ve licked it. (3/10)
- The ubiquitous, magical mystery cheese ball. Not saying they can’t be tasty, but it’s anyone’s guess what’s in them. We assume the basic ingredient is cream cheese, but what else lies beneath the chopped nuts and parsley coating? Ham, gummy bears, kibble, craisins? Guessing the ingredients is a good party game. (6/10: 7/10 if served with something other than Ritz crackers).
- Raw veggies and dip. I appreciate crudités in and amongst the fattening alternatives. It makes me feel righteous to reach for a carrot stick, momentarily deluding myself that I have a measure of self-control. I’ll munch said carrot while drooling over the sausage roll on the plate beside it. But the thing is too many platters are a listless medley of pale celery, dehydrated mini carrots and mushy cucumber clumped around a gloopy store-bought dip. A decent veggie tray should burst with fresh, seasonal produce and be accompanied by a homemade dipper. (2/10 – woody and wilted; 9/10 – fresh and imaginative)
- Stuffed dates. Another popular appie, bloat-potent with cream cheese or flavoured dip. Yummy if you can get past the fact they kind of look like the pupa stage of certain insects. In my opinion, dessert-level sweetness in an appie is kind of nasty – and more critically – makes my wine taste weird. And, these chewy buggers are brutal on your cocktail party smile. Don’t even think of engaging in witty repartee after gumming one of these puppies until you’ve checked the mirror for bugs between your teeth. Rate the date: (4/10)
- Baked kale chips. Are these really an appetizer fit for guests? Sure, they’re a nutritional powerhouse, but they just seem, so pedestrian, sort of the Cheezies-of-the-new-millennium. They also have an annoying habit of disintegrating into kale confetti. And see “stuffed dates” above for teeth checking. I would definitely avoid kale chips if I was, say, inclined to flirt at the cocktail party. Those green flecks wedged between your bicuspids are as sexy as red lipstick on your front teeth. (5/10)
- Stuffed mushrooms. They look delicious. From a distance. At room temperature, the filling congeals and the mushroom “holder” shrivels. Shouldn’t appetizers be, well – appetizing? (4/10)
- The shrimp ring with cocktail sauce dipper. If you’re going to serve shrimp – poppy, squirty mouthfuls of crustacean bliss – avoid the ghastly plastic ring found in the freezers of your handy mega-store. The presentation screams slacktavism – i.e. the minimal possible effort went into this. And thawed, they are pale, sad and briny mockeries of their former bottom-feeding selves. (3/10 – the ring o’ frozen fish; 9/10 – fresh and artful)
- Anything wrapped in bacon. What else is there to say? Yep, that’s right… nothing! An appie that is both gluten and carb free is the perfect food! (10/10)
Feature photo: Pat Hinton and me at our sons’ baby shower. (In case you’re wondering, no, I didn’t make the appetizers.)
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