DIPS AND SPREADS
Jean Anderson’s American Century Cookbook attributes the rising popularity of dips in America during the 1950s to James Beard’s influence. In his first cookbook, Hors d’Oeuvres and Canapes (1940), he writes “I think it delightful to have large bowls of cheese mixtures which are of a consistency that permits ‘dunking.’ Cream cheese mixed with chopped chives and sour cream, and perhaps a little green pepper and a great deal of parsley is always welcome. Roquefort cheese or Gorgonzola mixed with cream cheese or sour cream, with a flavoring of chopped chives or chopped raw mushrooms, is another good dunker. Cream cheese, sour cream and grated fresh horseradish and a few chopped chives is another delightful addition to this family. You may have your choice of dunkers – potato chips, pretzels, crackers, Italian bread sticks – any of them.”
At six foot three inches tall, and over 300 pounds at his peak weight, Beard did not succeed at his first career choices, to be an opera singer or an actor. He grew up in Oregon, where he was expelled from Reed College after only six months. In the next six years he pursued minor acting jobs in London, Paris, New York, Hollywood and San Francisco, before returning to Portland and, finally, settling in New York City in 1937. He supported himself by catering, eventually becoming a restaurant reviewer for Gourmet Magazine, the owner of a cooking school, America’s first television chef and first full fledged food celebrity. Beard’s best known book is American Cookery (Little Brown, 1972) and he is also remembered as a generous mentor to many younger American cooks.
While some Americans may not have discovered dips and spreads until the 20th century, they have been traditional for centuries, if not millennia, throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. Mezze, a selection of small plates served with drinks before dinner or as a light Sunday lunch, may include baba ghanouj, hummus, or muhammara, for example, along with warm pita bread, olives, nuts, raw vegetables, salads and /or meat kebabs. The word mezze derives from the Arabic t’mazza, which means ‘to savor in little bites’, and often these small dishes are left on the table as sides to accompany the meal. Although some Islamic people avoid mezze, associating them with alcohol consumption, contemporary restaurants may offer thirty or more, completely covering the tabletop, to lavish effect.
And the Middle East is not alone in enjoying a little something spread on a cracker that whets your appetite, but does not fill you up. French hors d’oeuvres include tapenades and anchoides, Greeks are known for spreads like kopanisti and taramasalata, Italians prepare bagna cauda, a “hot bath” for vegetables, Mexicans dunk tortillas into salsas and guacamole, Spanish tapas sometimes feature anchovy and pimiento pastes, and Asian cuisines offer dips that range from herb to peanut sauces.
As appetizers, these products of the processor (or, more traditionally, the mortar and pestle) can be spread on toasts or used with chips or crudités. They can be served with chicken wings, pork ribs or tostones. Some also can serve as marinades, pasta sauces, salad dressings or accompaniments for fish or grilled meat.