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Can you canape? January 5, 2013

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I mentioned canapes (the word is French, and there’s an accent over the e, so it’s “can-uh-PAYS,” singular “can-uh-PAY”) to a friend the other day and discovered that she’d never heard of them. Thinking back, I realized that I’d never actually heard the word “canape” used in conversation. I wondered if anyone today knows what canapes are, so I thought I’d clue everyone in.

Originally, canapes were yet another clever way for the frugal French to use stale bread, and make it trendy at that. The French began making them in the 1800s, and they became all the rage in the fashionable salons of the rich and titled. They eventually migrated to England, and thence to the U.S. But it took a while to cross the Atlantic, for several reasons, Prohibition and the Great Depression being just two.

You see, canapes were a specialized form of hors d’oeuvre (does anybody even remember that phrase? think “appetizer”) that were served with cocktails. They came into their own with the rise of the cocktail hour among the young and fashionable in the 1940s and ’50s. For an hour before dinner was served, people would gather with their friends to drink cocktails, eat canapes, and smoke. It was considered very elegant, tres chic. Elaborate ashtrays, lighters, and cigarette boxes (typically silver); specialized cocktail glasses and accoutrements (from martini shakers to the picks that held olives, onions, or your choice of drink garnish); and special canape platters and dishes were de rigeuer (all the rage).

Back to canapes: Originally, they were small buttered, toasted, super-thin rounds (or triangles or any other shapes) of bread, crusts removed, topped with a spread (such as a flavored butter or cream cheese), which in turn was topped with something like caviar, a sardine or anchovy, etc., and was finished with a garnish (such as a sprig of dill weed, a walnut, or a pimiento). The canapes were intended to be eaten with the fingers and consumed in a single bite: no fuss, no muss. And their entire raison d’etre (reason for being) was to enhance the cocktail-drinking experience.

In the U.S. in the Forties, some housewives still sliced, de-crusted, shaped (cookie and biscuit cutters came in handy here), buttered, and toasted their canape bread. But American ingenuity had been hard at work to relieve the homemaker of this arduous task so she could leave the kitchen and join everyone else in the living room for a few cocktails and cigarettes. Melba Toast, Saltines, Triscuits (then known by their generic name, triskets), specially made small thin rounds of rye bread, even potato chips and Shredded Wheat were pressed into service as bases for canapes.

By the Fifties, Saltines and Melba Toast were ubiquitous as the canape bases of choice. You lined up your toasts or crackers and opened a tin of anchovies or oysters (the tins opened with a weird key that you rolled the lid around), or some deviled ham or tuna fish, plopped some on each cracker, and served them up. For a really upscale occasion, you’d buy one of the tiny oblong loaves of thin-sliced rye bread, put a smear of cream cheese on each slice, and top it with a dab of caviar (the large red kind, who could afford the tiny black or grey caviar?).

There were plenty of bizarre and gross variations, as I discovered when checking my Grandma’s prized 1943 edition of Irma Rombauer’s The Joy of Cooking. Recipes included Smoked Salmon and Pretzel Canapes, Pickle Canapes (white bread smeared with pink paprika-cream cheese, then wrapped around a jumbo pickle and sliced), Peanut Butter and Bacon Canapes, Tomato Canapes with Bacon, Bran Biscuits with Cheese, Finger Roll Canapes (“finger rolls” were ready-made and so well-known that they required no explanation; I have no clue what they were), Toasted Braunschweiger and Sausage Canapes, and Toasted Cream Cheese and Fish Paste Canapes, among Mrs. Rombauer’s 48 canape recipes. In those days, people took their cocktail hour—and thus their canapes—seriously.

Today, our friend Ben and I know of only one person on earth who still observes cocktail hour, our friend Rob’s 92-year-old father. Precisely from 4 to 5 p.m. each day, he hosts cocktail hour at his home. There are no cigarettes, and there are no canapes. He serves mixed nuts, an assortment of cheeses, and crackers with his cocktails. But I’d bet he can not only remember but could describe in detail the canapes he and his wife served at diplomatic functions back in the distant day. I’ll have to ask him about them some day.

Meanwhile, I guess my own delicious Endive Boats are pretty close to canapes. They’re light and refreshing rather than filling, and they’re perfect finger food to enjoy with a glass of wine before a festive dinner. If you’re not ready to rush for the braunschweiger, sardines, canned oysters, or deviled ham (er, what was this, a cousin of SPAM?), give my easy, yummy Endive Boats a try:

Silence’s Scrumptious Endive Boats

2 heads Belgian endive, leaves separated, washed and dried
1 or 2 containers crumbled Gorgonzola, blue cheese, or feta, or a combination, to taste
1 package dried cranberries (craisins)
1 package crumbled pecans or walnuts
cracked black pepper

Arrange endive leaves decoratively on a platter. Fill each leaf “boat” with a mixture of crumbled cheese, dried cranberries, and nuts. Top with a good grind of fresh-ground black pepper. Supply napkins and let guests help themselves from the platter. Don’t count on leftovers, I’ve never had any, so make sure you take a couple for yourself!

Have you ever had, or even heard of, canapes? Did your parents or grandparents have favorite canape recipes that you can remember? If so, please share your memories with us. I love to time-travel back in memory to a time when people gathered to enjoy cocktails, cigarettes, and canapes, along with witty conversation and general relaxation, a time when healthy living wasn’t understood and thus wasn’t paramount. Instead, living it up, even on a modest scale, was what counted.

I can’t even imagine smoking or wolfing down canned oysters and Saltines. But I can imagine the enjoyable, innocent lifestyle that supported the classic cocktail hour, a happy time that’s beyond most of us in our rush-rush lives, where we’re stressed and pressured beyond the ability of previous generations to conceive. I think it’s time time to shut off the smartphone and revive the cocktail hour.

‘Til next time,