Wednesday, February 11, 2009

What a Swell Party This Is




It's so funny to read cooking and entertaining books because people seem to have such differing opinions on cocktail parties. There are those who are adamantly opposed to such a form of entertaining. They find the affairs to be dull and boring or too business-like. Then there are others (myself included) who enjoy drinks parties whether as the host or the guest.

The reason I like to give cocktail parties is because they seem to inspire a sense of conviviality. Loosen people up with a few drinks and who knows what might happen! (And inevitably, things do happen...like walking into a room and finding two guests in an amorous embrace. To me, that's far more entertaining than having someone spill red wine at a party!) I don't really think it's a cop out because at least you're entertaining.

To me, drinks of the alcoholic and non-alcoholic variety are of utmost importance, but food is a close second. You want to have a little variety with some light nibbles and something heavier to help sop up the alcohol. And remember, in their treatises on entertaining, Elsie de Wolfe, Dorothy Draper, and Elsa Maxwell all admonished their readers to serve hot hors d'oeuvres HOT, HOT, HOT!

Want to know what London society was serving at their cocktail parties in 1935? Well I came across this gem from
Vogue (Dec. 1935), and it proves that entertaining was serious business back then just as it is today.

Nowadays, the high point of any cocktail party is not so much the cocktails as the food that goes with them. Imagination about cocktail party food has become an absolute necessity- and to copy your clever friends the sincerest form of flattery. At this time of the year some hot food is essential- but nothing so unimaginative as hot sausages. They are out of date, back numbers. You must think up something different. The Prince of Wales has hot buttered American soda biscuits, with cod's roe, served in hot silver breakfast dishes, and creamed shrimps in little pastry containers. Mrs. Maugham has hot bacon sandwiches, which disappear as fast as the cook can make them. Lady Portarlington has a cocktail size edition of a hot meat pie, which nobody else has yet thought of (have you ever noticed that it is always the same people who think of the new things first?). Of course, it would be Mrs. Ernest Simpson who first thought of the wonderful combination of seeded white grapes with little cubes of Dutch cheese, stuck through with a wooden toothpick. Mrs. Simpson's food is of such a high standard that the intelligent guest fasts before going to dine or to have cocktails with her. Her hot dishes at cocktail parties are famous and are passed around in small quantities at intervals.

(Isn't it interesting that back in 1935, a grape and cheese pick was considered novel? And that it was none other than Wallis Simpson who introduced it to the London swells?!)

Image at top: The iconic "Kings of Hollywood" photo by Slim Aarons. No, Gable, Heflin, Cooper, and Stewart were not at a cocktail party, but if your guests end up having half as much fun at your cocktail party, then you're a heck of a host! (Photo Slim Aarons/Getty Images)


22 comments:

  1. Mrs Ernest Simpson was indeed the toast of the town in December 1935, a few months before her paramour became king. And within the close knit social circle around the PoW, this reference was certainly an acknowledgement of that relationship. How fascinating to read it. Thank you.

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  2. Columnist- I thought it was more than a coincidence that PoW and Wallis were mentioned in the same article. Oh to have been a fly on the wall in London society in 1935!

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  3. I have read about some of Wallis Simpsons's cocktail parties in her numerous biographies -they sound really amazing. There is an old fashioned (and expensive!) men's barber that has that slim aaron's photograph as the front of the store here in dc -i've always loved it!

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  4. Architect- That's a barber with a sense of style!!

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  5. You know I love a good party!
    I think more people should give cocktail parties!
    It's Carnival season here in New Orleans, and the cocktail parties are swinging into full force until Fat Tuesday.
    I am hosting a two myself!
    Ta ta for now.
    xo xo

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  6. Valorie- I bet y'all are having a rollicking good time down there!

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  7. Arabella Boxer's Book of English Food (1991) features recipes drawn from cookery books of the period as well as those articles in British Vogue concerning chic hostesses like Sybil Colefax or Nancy Tree or Winnie Portarlington. Strangely fascinating, to see what has stood the test of time and what has not.( Mrs Simpson's grape and cheese pick has put me in undignified hysterics, trying to imagine the labor intensive operation of de-seeding a grape and then stuffing it.)

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  8. I agree wholeheartedly. I would rather hold a beautiful glass and have an occasional nibble and be able to easily move around and chat with every soul than be trapped at a table for hours! Though, I will not abide cod roe and am very glad the nibbl portion has come a long, long beautiful way since! Be well, The Hostess

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  9. Toby- Some poor cook was slaving away in the kitchen de-seeding those grapes!

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  10. That is a great fun-fact about the toothpick. The thought of hot bacon sandwiches are making me hungry. Hot meat pie--not so much.

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  11. Millie- I'm with you. You can't go wrong serving bacon at a cocktail party.

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  12. To begin, that is one of my favourite pictures. What a gang!

    Dull? Boring? Business-like? Those folks are attending the absolute wrong parties. (And should contribute to the sense of fun to begin with. Mrs. E. and I call it "tap dancing for our cocktails.")

    "... as fast as the cook could make them." That sentence says volumes. One of the best hors d-oeuvres I've had recently was a fried oyster on a remoulade sauce served on a bite-sized piece of lightly toasted french bread. Incredible.

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  13. E&E- I agree. I've been to some FUN cocktail parties in my day. I threw some of them too! The fried oyster hors d'oeuvre sounds divine!!

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  14. Business like? Not around here. But they're best when the majority of the guests are walking home or have public transportation. I enjoy them when the guests are interesting, and I don't even drink myself. Cocktail parties allow one to mingle with many people without negotiating a heavy dinner or awkward dinner partners.

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  15. Cocktail parties are a delight IF the host does his/her job of introducing people. Many people are shy about butting into a conversation of strangers. When I host, I always try to enlist one or two friends to help me make sure no one is left miserable and alone in the corner.

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  16. I'm guessing that with the crazy economy entertaining in your home is going to be coming back in a big way.

    To keep down cost among my friends, we've begun taking turn hosting get- togethers. The host provides the beverage(s) du jour and everyone else brings something yummy to nibble on.

    Since everyone is responsible for only one item- people seem to be getting very creative and attempting new recipes/ideas.

    Who knows sometimes hard financial times ( the world wasn't in such great shape during the parties you mentioned )gets peoples imaginations stirring, let's hope that's the case now!

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  17. Last year, I tried to have a Cocktail party before each of my local Symphony's performances. Two hours at my house for cocktails and small bites and then off to the Plaza...that was the plan at least. 4 out of 5 times, we never made it to the Symphony.

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  18. Balsamfir and Lisa- Doesn't it drive you crazy when you're at a dinner, and the person seated next to you doesn't make any effort? Also, I always try to talk to the person standing alone at a party- whether I'm the hostess or the guest.

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  19. Live in Full Color- I think people will definitely start entertaining at home more often. And the food might be a bit more basic too, but still tasty. Good old comfort food!

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  20. Jill- I love that you have parties before the Symphony. That's great. And why break up a good party, even if it is for the Symphony!!

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  21. There are some dreamy photographs of classic Manhattan cocktail parties that will make you want to give one. The Slim Aarons shot of Diana Vreeland, her husband, and Slim Keith by a fireplace in the 1950s. And one of a George Plimpton evening in the 1960s, in The New York Times Book Review a few weeks back. Both amazing!

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  22. Stephen- I almost used that Aarons photo of DV and Slim Keith; it's such a great photo! I'm not familiar with the Plimpton photo but I'm off to find it on the internet. Thank you for the tip!

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