by John Ryan
I wish we had a better tradition for starting meals...starting with the word for it.
For me, "appetizer" is a company word. I only use it when company is coming over. "Starter" is a little too cute and commercial to use around the house. You only see "starters" in chain restaurants that serve onion rings and fried cheese to begin a meal. "Hors d'oeuvre" is too labor intensive. No matter what it means to the French, hors d'oeuvre on this side of the ocean take a mountain of bowls and pots and at least 10 times as long to assemble as it does to eat.
I'm not entirely comfortable with "antipasto" even though I like the concept. In appearance antipasti are a lusty way to begin a meal. Take caponata for instance: compared to dainty canapés on a silver tray, the thick relish of tomatoes, eggplant and peppers practically invites you to put your elbows on the table.
But whatever "it" is called, the notion persists that appetizers, starters, hors d'oeuvre, and antipasti should merely arouse the appetite.
It's a nice theory...IF you're not particularly hungry.
The thing is that most days I arrive home frustrated by traffic and famished. Sure, if I had a late afternoon snack under my belt, teasing my appetite would be a lovely way to approach dinner, but that never happens. Or if it does, a late afternoon snack translates as potato chips.
I see this—our lack of a traditional first course—not only affecting the way we eat, but also affecting the way we cook.
Without at least something to eat, dinner becomes urgent, and only recipes that can be ready in less than 20 minutes —no, 10 minutes... no, NOW!—are considered.
No wonder cheese, crackers, and chips are so popular. and no wonder they often become dinner.
One solution (though I still don't have an all-purpose word for this part of the meal) is to have a vegetable salad on hand. It can be home made or picked up ready-made. Then there is something to eat when you walk in the door. Granted, it won't be as good as a bag of barbecued potato chips, but it will be tasty. and it is real food.
With something to take the edge off (like the dishes included below), then those recipes that involve some chipping, or recipes that take a bit of marinating, become a bit more attractive on a weeknight.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
This page modified July 2001