A Brief History Of Appetizers… Or Is That Hors D’oeuvre?

The dishes we serve prior to the main course are designed to whet the appetite and set the tone for the meal. They occupy the mind and belly while dining guests wait for the centerpiece that will satisfy their hunger to the fullest.

You might be familiar for the French name for appetizers: Hors d’oeuvre. While “appetizer” refers specifically to building the appetite, Hors d’oeuvre literally means, “outside of the masterpiece.” Don’t you love this? It is as though we are on the threshold, waiting for a revelation that can only be experienced once we come inside. Food is art.

The Ancient Romans and Greeks are depicted lounging with trays of fresh fruit, wine, olives and cheese. Their feasting style surely inspired our modern-day appetizers. Their meals are said to have been (pardon the choice of words) an orgy of Hors D’oeuvre. These included fish and seasoned vegetables also. The main course (whenever they got to it) featured some of the same foods, in ever larger quantities.

All through history, those who had the means to secure large quantities of food, and to entertain, have enjoyed stretching the meal time and conversation experience by serving a variety of successive courses, beginning with finger foods, many of which were often on the salty side, to stimulate the appetite. There is a sense of leisure and abandonment to it all; and certainly of abundance.

During the Renaissance (14th to 17th century), physicians recommended eating small morsels of salty meats prior to a meal in order to prepare the digestive system for the main course and to ensure proper digestion. Appetizers have been served in nearly all cultures. Historians believe this practice evolved quite naturally after we set aside our hunter-gatherer lifestyle and became sedentary; perhaps an instinctive evolution of our grazing days, when small bites of fruit and nuts indeed set the tone for the long-awaited real meal.

Prior to the nineteenth century, appetizers were typically available throughout a meal. Then, the succession of courses we know today became common practice. At this time, appetizers change radically, becoming an ever more refined aspect of the meal and becoming a separate course altogether. This, too , is the time when the term “appetizer” enters common usage.

We turn to the French again for one additional observation. While hors d’oeuvre refers to the part of a meal one may indulge in prior to the chef’s masterpiece, amuse-gueules, a term that is often used interchangeably with appetizer (or hors d’oeuvre) means “teaser for the palate,” and refers to small buffet-style dishes served at parties rather than an introductory course to a meal.

The appetizers pictured above represent a selection we might offer when catering an event. Below, we thought we’d recommend three of our favorites from our daily menu. Here, we call them “Starters.

Baked Brie & Bleu – Baked Brie and Bleu in a puff pastry. Sliced baguette, candied pecans, strawberries and balsamic reduction.

158 Main Nachos – Layers of chips, tomato, jalapenos, lettuce, black olives, green onion, Jack and Cheddar, served with salsa sour cream and guacamole.

Spinach & Artichoke Dip – Spinach and artichoke baked with Cheddar and served with sliced baguette.

See more appetizers on our Dinner Menu, Lunch Menu and Brunch Menu.

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