Cocktail Party (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
COCKTAIL PARTY. The cocktail party is a social gathering, held early in the evening, usually for a period of about two hours, typically from 5:00 to 7:00 P.M.or 6:00 to 8:00 P.M. It may take place in the home, in a food-service setting such as the private room of a restaurant or hotel, or in a business such as an art gallery or bookstore. Cocktails, wine, and soft drinks are served, though contemporary cocktail parties may in fact offer wine and soft drinks exclusively and skip the cocktails. In any case, beverages are accompanied by finger foods, which are meant to delight the palate, stave off hunger until dinnertime, and complement the cocktails.
Depending on variables such as the host's budget and degree of formality desired, the cocktail party may be catered or prepared at home, drinks may be mixed and served by a bartender, or the host may act as bartender. Servers may be employed to pass around hors d'oeuvres or the host may simply pass them around or arrange them on a buffet.
Certain physical and social behaviors on the part of the guests characterize cocktail parties. Normally, guests are not seated, but remain standing. Drinks in hand, they mill about, socializing to the strains of music, typically an instrumental arrangement, solo piano, or vocal jazz, played at a volume that encourages conversation. Rather than allowing participants to engage in deep and lengthy discourse, the social aim of the cocktail party is for guests to participate in small talk. At purely social cocktail parties, friends catch up or become reacquainted; new friends are introduced. At business-related cocktail parties, new contacts are made, business cards exchanged, and connections renewed.
History of the Cocktail Party
The cocktail party is a modern invention, conceived in the 1920s. Before World War I, most home entertaining was quite formal: people hosted teas, dinners, and balls. After 1918 informal entertaining became much more accepted.
In 1920 when the Eighteenth Amendment put Prohibition into effect, public consumption of liquor was driven underground into the speakeasy, and brought for the first time into the home. Before that, Americans may have served wine at dinner, but the consumption of hard liquor was generally confined to the tavern; and women, for the most part, did not drink alcohol at all. Speakeasies, in an attempt to compete for business, created fanciful cocktails, heretofore unknown in the United States, and even welcomed women. Those Americans who made their own spirits at home ("bathtub gin") adapted these new cocktail recipes for home use. A boom in the manufacture and sales of bar accessories ensued, including cocktail glasses and shakers.
A simultaneous explosion in the importation of fancy canned foods, such as olives, anchovies, and smoked oysters, encouraged people to serve hors d'oeuvres incorporating these comestibles along with their cocktails. Friends came to call before dinner, as was the habit, and the cocktail party was born. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, American zeal for the cocktail party only increased, encouraged by idealized depictions of cocktail parties in motion pictures.
With the postorld War II economic boom, cocktail parties became institutionalized as an appealing way to entertain friends at home. In addition, it became a form of business entertaining brought into the home. The man of the house (typically the sole wage-earner) would invite his employer and his wife, along with friends, coworkers, and other acquaintances; the woman of the house would act as hostess. Women wore "cocktail dresses," the knee-length sleeveless sheaths that are still in fashion.
The popularity of the cocktail party waned in the 1960s, with the rise of the counterculture. It began to see a renaissance in the mid-1980s, though at that time it was taken out of the home. Cocktail parties became popular forums for celebrating art gallery openings, book publications, product launches, and other commercial ventures. The 1990s saw a resurgence of cocktail parties given in the home, fueled partly by young adults who found the kitsch value of cocktail culture appealing.
Although the cocktail party is a purely American institution, it has been exported around the world, adopted by many other cultures. In France, for instance, the cocktail party is known as le cocktail.
Food and Drink
Hors d'oeuvres may be hot or cold, passed around, or placed on tables. Traditionally, cocktail party foods have tended toward the salty and fatty, encouraging the consumption of cocktails. At contemporary cocktail parties, traditional hors d'oeuvres from other cultures frequently appearrom Caribbean cod fritters to sushi. So do ingredients and techniques from other cultures used in new waysor instance, tuna tartare canapés or mini-pizzas. Hors d'oeuvres tend to be more or less elaborate depending on whether the party is given at a business or a home, and whether they are prepared at home or catered.
Traditional cold hors d'oeuvres include boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce, smoked salmon, caviar, and olive canapés. Cold hors d'oeuvres incorporating vegetables, such as endive leaves filled with herbed goat cheese, have become popular.
Meatballs, rumaki (skewered chicken livers wrapped in bacon), shrimp toast, and hors d'oeuvres made with puff pastry are traditional hot cocktail party hors d'oeuvres, but today anything from Italian rice dumplings to mini "burgers" made of seared foie gras might be served. Skewered, grilled foods have become popular, including Thai satés.
Classically, the beverages served were cocktails in the strict sense of the word, that is to say a spirit combined with bitters (or a bitter element such as vermouth), and perhaps sugar and/or water (sometimes in the form of ice). Examples of this would be martinis, Manhattans, Old-Fashioneds, Rob Roys, and champagne cocktails. Contemporary cocktail party beverages would be cocktails, especially cosmopolitans and martinis, liquor served straight-up or on the rocks, wine, champagne, and sparkling mineral water. Beer is generally avoided.
In the 1920s little single-subject recipe books began to appear, featuring recipes for cocktails and/or finger foods, many, but not all of them, published by liquor companies. These books grew in popularity with the cocktail party itself, culminating in a large number of titles published in the 1950s. Their publication died down until the mid-1980s, when a few titles appeared; by the mid-1990s they had reemerged as a significant subgenre of cookbooks.
See also Cocktails; Fads in Food; Spirits; Symbol, Food as; Table Talk; Whiskey (Whisky).
Brenner, Leslie. The Art of the Cocktail Party. New York: Plume, 1994.
Editors of Esquire. Esquire's Handbook for Hosts. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1949.
Grimes, William. Straight Up or on the Rocks: A Cultural History of American Drink. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.