Anne Mendelson, in Stand Facing the Stove, her 1996 biography of Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker, the mother/daughter team who wrote The Joy of Cooking, reports that, in the United States, Prohibition “cemented a new relationship between eating and drinking, driving hard liquor from the male bastion of the saloon into the home and creating an urgent need for handy, smart foods to soak up the booze – preferably filling foods with assertive flavors…..The new popularity of cocktail parties, whether powered by good bootleg liquor or bathtub swill, further boosted the popularity of cocktail tidbits…”
Jean Anderson carries the story further in her American Century Cookbook, “Though Prohibition ended in 1933, the cocktail party – and thus bite-sized nibbles – were slow to reach Grass Roots America, perhaps because many Christian denominations continued to damn alcohol, particularly in the “Bible Belt” of the South.” Her research found few cocktail food recipes in American cookbooks until the late thirties, with James Beard’s first cookbook, Hors d’oeuvres and Canapes, creating a breakthrough in 1940. He wrote, “The hors d’oeuvre is a rite rather than a course and its duty is to enchant the eye, please the palate, and excite the flow of gastric juices…” Beard had a particular fondness for dips.
While Americans may have been slow to accept appetizers and cocktails, Europeans had been doing it for years, if not centuries. “What dips are to the American cocktail hour, crostini are to the Italian table,” writes Marcella Hazan in her cookbook Marcella Says. “As in those shows where someone appears on the stage to warm up the audience before the star comes on, crostini keep the palate entertained while it waits for the main course to arrive. Crostini may also be served as a snack during the long interval between lunch, which in Italy is the main meal of the day, and dinner, which in some parts of the country may not start before 9pm. The word crostini means small crust of bread…”
The toasts that follow can start a meal, or accompany a salad or soup.