Origins & Information - (A-Z) Hors D'oeuvres

"Hors d’Oeuvre: A ham sandwich cut into forty pieces."

Here we go with a word that many people tend to butcher or not know how to spell: hors d'ouevres. Hey, I don't blame you - it's certainly not a word that follows many of the patterns we normally see in our own vocabulary. That's because the word is French! So how do you say it? "or-DERVZ"! These are basically the (usually single or double-bite) delicious little finger foods that precede a meal or are just served as the food for cocktail parties/receptions. They should not be mistaken for appetizers however because they are usually small sample sizes that are eaten with fingers or toothpicks rather than the first course of a meal. Literally translated, the word means "apart from the main work" and derived from the architectural term for an outbuilding but have grown to represent the precursors to a main dish. They can be served on a table or, more often, on trays that are carried around by waiters/waitresses.

A blanket term, hors d'oeuvres encompass a wide variety of foods and were a concept borrowed from ancient Greeks and Romans whose lavish meals were usually begun with finger foods that were passed around to whet appetites. Initially, they were as simple as olives, crudites, nuts, and such but now they have become a reason to make savory elaborate morsels.

There are several unspoken rules for hors d'oeuvres that make the experience of enjoying them much better. They should not be runny/wet/dripping/overly messy as it makes guests have to find a napkin or become self-conscious. Sauces are allowed but only if thick enough not to get everywhere or enclosed. They can be hot or cold but not scalding or frozen. Also, to go along with drinks (with which they are usually served), it is very good if the hors d'oeuvres are savory and salty; besides, you should have these out if you have alcohol lest your guests become quickly drunk on empty stomachs.

Tips for serving hors d'oeuvres
  • For small parties, one or two hors d'oeuvres are adequate.
  • For large parties, make sure to have something from each of the categories of seafood, cheese, vegetables, and meat.
  • 25 guests = 5-6 different kinds. 25-50 = 9-10 kinds. 50+ = 10+ kinds.
  • A person will probably eat 6-8 pieces per hour if served before a meal. If replacing a meal, 20 pieces per person can be expected. They should be bite-sized.
  • If these will replace a meal, have some foods that can mimic hors d'oeuvres but are more filling such as a carving station.
  • The first hour and a half is the prime eating time period. After two hours, guests will come back to pick at the food if it is set out and not being "butlered" around.
  • Both hot and cold hors d'oeuvres are acceptable.
  • Good flavors are cheese, olive, tomato, bacon, ham, and fish.
  • Easy hors d'oeuvres include toast/crackers spread with anything, puff pastries, quiches, miniature crab/fish cakes, or small foods that can be on small skewers/toothpicks.

This post is part of an A-Z series I am running for my blog category "Origins and Information" while I am in Vietnam with my family for July. Many of the posts in the series answer questions that were posed by friends/readers. If y'all enjoy the series, I will gladly run another in the future!