Those who still like to slosh down double scotches with dip-slathered chips might not agree, but some of New York's loftiest food writers say that cocktail snacks are not in good taste.

Roquefort balls, bacon-wrapped livers and cream cheese canapes just aren't playing on Park Avenue (though the folks in Peoria may not have heard.)

"I've always been against them," growled James Beard. "I know, I've written a good deal about them, but I don't like serving elaborate snacks with cocktails."

"For a small, elegant dinner party," said Gael Greene, "I may not serve anything before, though I have been to parties where caviar, foie gras or oysters have been served, and I haven't been offended. The more serious you get about food and cooking, the more you want people to enjoy what you're serving at the table."

But what about the coffee table -- where near-strangers have become fast friends, their hands grappling for the guacamole and colliding over the canapes? What about that American institution -- the cocktail hour?

Even the doyens of dining admit that they serve an occasional olive or an almond or two to guests who are happily sipping in the living room. (Beard likes "hand-done" salted almonds from Maison Glass in New York; Greene purchases dry-cured olives and marinates them in oil spiked with hot peppers.)

What has sparked this scuttling of the elaborate cocktail snack? For many working people who like to entertain, the reason has as much to do with time as with taste. One Washington writer and mother of three said, "There's no way I'm going to wash and chop three pounds of mushrooms just to make hors d'oeuvres for a dinner party." She serves pistachio nuts with apertifs, or perhaps chunks of mozzarella and olives.

And maybe people are just fed up with hors d'oeuvres as we've come to know them in this country -- the gloppy dips and cunning canapes that are more likely to ruin than rouse the appetite.

M.F.K. Fisher has written that she feels "almost violent" about "the custom of presenting elaborate canapes, mistakenly called hors d'oeuvres in our country, which more and more take the place of a first course at table and often serve adequately as a full meal.... " She added that "most appetizers as we now present them would be better off served as a first course, and to people sitting down."

Chicago food writer Phylis Magida traces her aversion to canapes to an experience she had as a curious 10-year-old, running amok at a bar mitzvah. "There was this huge table, covered with beautiful things to eat. They were pink and yellow and all shapes and I knew they were the most delicious candy. Some had dark drops on top that had to be chocolate. I took one, and of course thought it tasted awful. That's the trouble I have with canapes, even now. Most of the time you can't tell what you're eating."

The annals of American cooking are full of recipes that might have been better off not served. Take this quick and easy recipe that ran in the November 1943 House Beautiful. On the cover of this wartime issue, a woman looks longingly at a picture of her soldier. Inside, there's a recipe for "Alaskan Appetizers": Mix 1/2 cup peanut butter, 1/3 cup chili sauce and 1 tablespoon minced onion; spread on bread rounds and dot with bacon squares.

Or take these two from the "Encyclopedia of Cooking," published in 1950. Spread a thin slice of bologna with American cheese and heat at 350 degrees until bologna curls. Cut bananas into 1-inch pieces, dip in grapefruit juice, spread with cream cheese and roll in nuts.

Maybe the bologna should be cut into pieces and dipped in grapefruit juice, and the bananas heated until they curl.

Our forefathers may be partly responsible for the poor reputation of the American hors d'oeuvre. According to the "Better Homes & Garden Heritage Cook Book," Abigail Adams sometimes served guests cornmeal pudding as a first course because it "toned down appetites and prevented the rest of the food from disappearing too quickly."

The hors d'oeuvre is much older than Abigail Adams, of course, and may have been tastier the way the ancient Greeks prepared it. Reay Rannahil, in her book "Food in History," traces the origin of the hors d'oeuvre to third-century-B.C. Athens. What she calls the original hors d'oeuvre "Trolley" held garlic, sea urchins, sweet wine sop, cockles and sturgeon. Arabs in the 10th century, she writes, enjoyed capers, garlic, olives and salted fish before the main course, and a menu from a banquet given by Pope Pius V in 1570 included as part of the first course "plain pastries made with milk and eggs... prosciutto cooked in wine, sliced and served with capers, grape pulp and sugar; salted pork tongues cooked in wine, sliced; spit-roasted songbirds, cold, with their tongues sliced over them, and sweet mustard."

Some food historians say the modernday hors d'oeuvre was an innovation of 19th-century Russia where the zakuska (small bites) was served before dinner, the main meal of the day. An assortment of cheeses, meats, pickles, caviar, breads and butter, zakuska was served on a table in a reception room or front hall to the travel-weary guests, who were also warmed with plenty of vodka.

In France, the hors d'oeuvre is the first course and part of the meal. That practice seems to be catching on in this country, even if some some cooks choose to move the first course out of the dining room to the coffee table or serve it in the kitchen.

Asked to name his favorite hors d'oeuvre, Jacques Pepin replied "a tomato." Pepin creates elegant and often elaborate first courses for his books and classes. But at home in Connecticut, he said, he likes a simple ripe tomato, sliced, drizzled with virgin olive oil and sprinkled with basil.

What do some other food professionals serve as the first course? Gael Greene likes to offer guests duck livers, when she can find them, sauteed in butter and garlic and deglazed with madeira and raisins. In summer when she's at the beach, she serves eggplant or zucchini that has been barbecued on the grill, cooled to room temperature and dressed with a vinaigrette. Or she may get fresh shrimp with the heads still on, saute them with garlic and kosher salt and serve them spread on newspapers.

"The salt gets on your fingers and the messiness is a great ice breaker."

If she's writing, Greene added, "and doing an easy dinner, I may just serve smoked salmon or prosciutto with figs."

The first thing you serve your guests might be as simple as Pepin's tomato, a stuffed egg, nicely garnished, or poached leeks with a vinaigrette. Recipes follow for these and other first courses, to be served on plates in individual portions, rather than in the stomach-stuffing, grab and grapple cocktail party tradition.


(6 servings)

5 small or 3 medium zucchini (about 2 cups)

4 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon wine vinegar

1 medium clove garlic, crushed

Salt and pepper to taste

Peel zucchini and slice thin. Put in ovenproof dish and sprinkle with salt. In separate dish, mix oil and vinegar; add garlic, salt and pepper. Place zucchini in 400-degree oven for 3 to 4 minutes or until vegetable begins to sweat. Toss with vinegar-oil mixture. Let cool. Serve at room temperature, or slightly chilled with thin slices of French bread that have been lightly browned under broiler.


(6 to 8 servings)

1/2 pound smoked salmon

1 1/4 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon capers, drained

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Freshly ground pepper to taste

Pull or cut away any small bones in salmon. Put salmon in blender jar (or food processor bowl) and process until fish is almost a puree. Add remaining ingredients and blend. Spoon into bowl, cover and chill. Serve mounded on plates, garnished with a few capers, and toasted rounds of French bread.


(5 or 6 servings)

8 medium leeks

4 slices bacon

2 tablespoons wine vinegar

1 to 2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

8 tablespoons olive oil

Trim off root end of leeks, and leaves, leaving about an inch of green. Wash thoroughly, slitting cross-wise just below green to make sure all grit can be rinsed away. Put trimmed leeks in skillet, cover with water and simmer until just tender, about 10 minutes, being careful not to overcook them. Test with a fork.

Meanwhile, fry bacon in skillet until crisp. Drain and cool, then crumble. Drain leeks on paper toweling. Mix vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper and stir in oil. Halve leeks and arrange on plates; chill. When ready to serve, add oil-vinegar dressing and garnish with bacon bits.


(4 servings)

4 medium-size, hard-cooked eggs, peeled and halved

2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

1 tablespoon butter, softened

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

2 teaspoons cornichons (imported midget gherkins), minced

Salt and pepper to taste

Pimiento, ripe olives, cornichons for garnish

Mash egg yolks to a fine consistency. Add mustard, butter, mayonnaise and minced cornichons and mix well. Add salt and pepper to taste. Using pastry bag with decorative tip, fill egg halves with yolk mixture. Chill. When ready to serve, place two egg halves on a salad plate and garnish tops with minced cornichons. Arrange julienne strips of pimiento and thin slices of cornichons on plate to make "flowers"; add a few olives. Repeat on three other plates.


(6 servings)

1 can (14 ounces) hearts of palm

1 jar (4 ounces) pimiento

Black olives, pitted

2 tablespoons wine vinegar

1 teaspoon mild curry powder

Salt and pepper to taste

8 tablespoons olive oil

Cut hearts of palm lengthwise into halves or quarters, depending upon size. Cut pimiento into thin strips. Mix vinegar, curry powder, salt and pepper then stir in olive oil. Arrange hearts of palm, pimiento and olives on serving plates. Drizzle with vinaigrette.