Tag Archives: appetizers

Appetizer: words, concepts, contents

Appetizers became a prelude to a meal when many Americans suffered digestive problems in the 18th and 19th centuries. The idea was that appetizers were various items of fare that would help stimulate an appetite in those who were out of sorts. They could be foods, medicinal tonics, or alcoholic drinks.

Due to the strong influence of English customs in early America, the notion of taking something before a meal as a digestive stimulant more often than not meant an alcoholic drink rather than food. So the English term most often used – whets – referred primarily (though not exclusively) to drinks before dinner. The French equivalent of whets would be aperitifs.

As a term, however, “whets” did not appear on printed menus as far as I’ve discovered.

Drinks that usually served as whets/appetizers/aperitifs included rum, brandy, sherry, vermouth, champagne, and Dubonnet. In the 20th century especially, cocktails became a favorite pre-dinner drink.

While many diners began their restaurant meals with a cocktail, the drink itself was rarely referred to as an appetizer or whet after the 19th century. So I was quite surprised to find a Louisiana roadhouse restaurant listing Martinis, Old Fashion[ed]s, and Manhattans as appetizers in a 1956 advertisement!

As food, appetizers were usually lighter things consumed before the heavier Fish, Entrées, and Roasts courses typical of formal meals of the 19th century.

The word “Appetizer” itself though does not seem to have come into common use in American restaurants until the early 20th century. The term “Hors d’Oeuvres” was also used, as was “Relishes.” The French “Hors d’Oeuvre” tended to be used by higher-priced restaurants, such as New York’s Cafe Martin [1903], that sought to create an aura of continental elegance and sophistication.

Relishes initially referred to light vegetable foods, sometimes sauces. In the mid-19th century they were sometimes served just before the sweet courses, but by the early 20th century the category had risen to near the top of menus. Over time, the foods that had once appeared separately as Relishes tended to become included under the heading Appetizers.

But it’s almost impossible to firmly settle the question of what kinds of foods are found in the various categories – Relishes, Hors d’Oeuvres, Canapes, Appetizers, etc. The categories are loose and highly variable. One restaurant’s Relishes are another’s Hors d’Oeuvres.

A distinction is often made between Hors d’Oeuvres and Appetizers, stressing that the latter are eaten at the table in restaurants while Hors d’Oeuvres are one-bite morsels offered by servers to standing guests before they are seated. This distinction may hold for catered events but not for restaurants where there is no hesitation about using Hors d’Oeuvres as a general category.

Also confusing are the menus listing “Hors d’Oeuvres” as a selection under the headings Appetizers or Relishes. In 1917 a menu from San Francisco’s Portola Louvre actually put Hors d’Oeuvres under the heading Hors d’Oeuvres, along with caviar, sardines, celery, etc. Imagine a waiter asking, “Would you like some Hors d’Oeuvres for your Hors d’Oeuvres?

Until the 1960s and 1970s, the food items that were most commonly offered as beginnings to restaurant dinners were prepared simply and usually served cold. They have included: Fresh vegetables such as celery, radishes, artichoke hearts, and spring onions. Fresh fruits, including grapefruit and melons. Pickled and preserved vegetables, whether olives, beets, peppers, or traditional cucumber pickles. Preserved fruit combinations such as chutney and chow chow. Juices of tomato, grapefruit, pineapple, sauerkraut, and clams. Fresh seafoods — oysters, shrimp, lobster, scallops, and crab. And cured, smoked, pickled, deviled, and marinated meats and seafood/fish, including Westphalia ham, sausages, prosciutto, caviar, paté de foie gras, eels, herring, sardines, salmon, anchovies, and whitefish.

I am impressed that celery – en branche, hearts, a la Victor, a la Parisienne, Colorado, Kalamazoo, Pascal, Delta, stuffed, etc. – stayed on menus from the 19th century until long after World War II.

Heavier, more substantial, and often heated Appetizers seem to have been introduced post-WWII mainly by restaurants designated as Polynesian, Cantonese, and Mexican/Latin. In 1960 New York’s La Fonda del Sol offered appetizers such as Avocado Salad on Toasted Tortillas, Little Meat and Corn Pies, Grilled Peruvian Tidbits on Skewers, and Tamales filled with chicken, beef, or pork. A 1963 menu from a Polynesian restaurant called The Islander dedicated a whole page to its “Puu Puus (Appetizers)” that included ribs, chicken in parchment, won tons, and fried shrimp. The assortment was quite similar to the offerings at Jimmy Wong’s Cantonese restaurant in Chicago shown above.

By the 1980s, many restaurants featured appetizers that would now likely be called “Small Plates” or items for “grazing.” Two or three were substantial enough to make up a dinner in themselves, as demonstrated here by a rather expensive Spago menu from 1981.

If grazing was a form of “light eating,” that could not be said of the appetizers introduced in the 1970s and 1980s by casual dinner house chains such as TGI Friday, Chili’s [1987 menu above], and Bennigan’s. Now the idea of an appetizer was completely turned on its head. Far from a light morsel that would induce appetite in someone with digestive issues, it became a digestive issue in its own right — deep fried and loaded with fat. The menus of leading casual dinner chains overflowed with “Starters” such as deep-fried breaded cheese, “loaded” potato skins, cheese fries [pictured at top of post], and heaping piles of nachos laced with pico de gallo and cheese. Diners might need a 19th-century digestive tonic after dinner.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Filed under chain restaurants, elite restaurants, ethnic restaurants, food, menus, restaurant customs

French fried onion rings

It’s hard to say just how long french fried onion rings have been on restaurant menus. But it’s likely that they were served at the Grove Park Inn, in Asheville NC, shortly after it opened in 1913. A few years later politician William Jennings Bryan’s recipe for them appeared in a Boston newspaper in which he said that the inn was the first place he – a frequent traveler – had ever encountered them.

Women had been preparing them in their homes before that. A recipe appeared in Women’s Home Companion in 1905, but I’m sure they were known earlier.

Bryan’s recollection as well as the 1905 recipe settle the question of whether french fried onion rings were the 1920s invention of a Pig Stand in Texas as frequently claimed on the internet. They were not.

In the 1930s onion rings became more common in restaurants, probably aided by improvements in cooking oil (though many used lard) and deep fryers. Then, and for several decades later, they were usually featured as an accompaniment to a steak. In the heart of the Depression Schrafft’s advertized its Sizzling Steak Combination, saying, “With it you get generous helpings of French fried potatoes, onion rings or a fresh vegetable, a green salad, and a pot of Schrafft’s coffee, $1.50.” It ended with the tagline, “A Man’s Meal.”

They were often specifically marketed to men. Whether women shied away from them because of fear of breath contamination or some other stigma is unclear. Or maybe they enjoyed them just as much as men did, but were less likely to order steak because of price.

Despite the fact that men liked onion rings, onions in general carried a stigma. At various times in the last century they were characterized as “ordinary and even common,” as breath contaminators, and as food that restaurant kitchen workers did not like to handle. A 1966 handbook recommended that restaurant operators drawing up menus “shun” onions, along with lamb kidneys, pig’s knuckles, parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas. In 1969 a Gallup Poll found that potatoes were Americans’ favorite vegetables, followed by green beans, asparagus, corn, and tomatoes. French fried onions were ranked as slightly more popular than broccoli, lima beans, and peas.

Prejudices aside, onion rings grew more popular over time.

The arrival of pre-breaded frozen onion rings, which saved kitchen labor, was almost certainly part of their rising popularity. Their production began in the early 1950s when food companies contracted with fish processors who had learned the art of breading and freezing. Contra the Gallup poll, in 1969 one writer acknowledged that, after french fries, onion rings “must be the all time favorite accompaniment to hamburgers.”

Use of the ready-to-heat rings increased in the 1970s when fast food chains began to serve them. Some, such as those sold at Burger King, were made of ground onions that had been extruded through tubes in factories. Their uniform size and shape, suited for “portion control,” did not sit well with a restaurant reviewer in 1977. He complained that a Burger King in Seattle served onion rings that were “those pressed-onion jobs that come out all one size and lacking a great deal of onion taste.” What an ingrate! Didn’t he realize that extrusion meant he could count on always receiving the exact same number of grams of breading and ground onion as the next customer?

In 1978 McDonald’s began test-marketing their own version of deep fried onions, using chunks instead of rings and calling their “french fried chopped onion product” Onion Nuggets. But the nuggets didn’t make it past the test stage, reputedly because they got cold too quickly. Restaurant onion rings, in general, were often criticized for being served cold – as well as for being limp and greasy.

Overall, the historic trajectory of onion rings in restaurants seems to be:

  1. Beginning in the early 20th century primarily as a garnish or accompaniment to a steak
  2. Especially as onion prices rose, becoming a separately priced side order, often where hamburgers were popular such as drive-ins and fast food outlets.
  3. Ascending to the top of the menu — with inflated prices — as appetizers at dinner-house chains such as TGI Friday.

Though not ring-shaped, Outback Steakhouse’s “Bloomin’ Onion” may have propelled deep fried onions to their historic pinnacle both in terms of fat and calorie load as well as price.

© Jan Whitaker, 2021

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Once trendy: tomato juice cocktails

eutawhouse

Recently I acquired a 1947 menu from the Algonquin Hotel of “round table” literary fame. I noticed that one of the appetizers was tomato juice and I thought to myself how commonplace a selection that once was and how rarely it is seen today.

No doubt there are restaurants that still have it on the menu – nothing really ever goes away totally. It reminds me strongly of an old standby restaurant in Massachusetts that closed about ten years ago. I was fascinated by the quaint metal contraptions on each table holding little pots of appetizers such as cottage cheese, olives, and pickles. There must have been tomato juice on the menu, too, despite it being decidedly out of style by then.

I was so convinced that tomato juice was hopelessly unimaginative that I was taken by surprise when I did a little research and discovered that it was considered a fashionable snob drink in the 1920s and 1930s. It came into vogue in the 1920s along with other good-for-you foods such as Melba toast, cottage cheese, pineapple, and sauerkraut juice. Women’s magazines touted it as smart, healthful, and perfect for anyone wanting to lose pounds just like a Hollywood movie star.

It is said that a chef at the French Lick resort hotel in Indiana introduced tomato juice to  American diners in 1917. It MIGHT be true that he was first to serve it in a public dining room – it does not seem to appear on American menus prior to World War I. However tomato juice was well known and available in cans in the 19th century so he clearly did not invent it (as is often reported).

A tomato juice cocktail could be made by the addition of tobasco sauce, paprika, sauerkraut juice, clam juice, etc. Mix well, shake until foamy, and pour over crushed ice. Restaurants tried all sorts of combinations. The Wrigley Building Restaurant in Chicago came up with clabbered tomato juice which was tomato juice mixed with a goodly amount of cottage cheese. Denver’s Blue Parrot Inn blended orange and tomato juices, while The Colony in New York mixed clam and tomato.

tomatojuice

Although tomato juice could be found on menus of all kinds of eating places, even Chinese-American restaurants, it tended to be an appetizer favored by those who eat luncheon, not lunch. It was especially popular in restaurants that appealed to women then such as tea rooms, quaint inns, and department store restaurants. [illustration shows portions of menus from China Garden, Filene’s department store, and Willow Tea Cottage]

Arriving on the scene as it did during Prohibition, tomato juice clearly served as a non-alcoholic cocktail. Non-drinkers appreciated it, as did serious imbibers who had overdone things at their neighborhood speakeasy. It was a well known morning-after tonic continuing into the 1950s (and perhaps the present). In 1939 a restaurant in Shawnee OK allegedly served a “hangover breakfast” of tomato juice with hot sauce, soft-boiled egg, whole wheat toast, coffee, and two aspirins.

Tomato juice was so popular by the mid-1930s, both in homes and restaurants, that government scientists were said to be working on disease-resistant tomato varieties that would yield more juice. But by the 1980s it was considered an appetizer totally lacking in sex appeal, analogous to vanilla ice cream as a dessert. But, who knows? It could make a comeback. Tomato and kale juice cocktails?

© Jan Whitaker, 2014

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