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The History of Appetizers


Four plates of boneless wing appetizers from TimeOut Tavern exemplifying the history of appetizers.

The best lunches and dinners start with an appetizer. What you might not know about these small and delicious dishes is that they come from a rich history that spans multiple centuries and cultures. From the small beginnings to the various selections we have today, appetizers have come a long way in satisfying hunger and bringing people together before the main meal even begins! With today’s options, the appetizer dishes seem to be endless—but that wasn’t always the case. Let’s go back to the beginning.


The Origins of Appetizers

The concept of appetizers, or small dishes served before the main meal, dates to ancient civilizations. The earliest documented proof of appetizers was by the Athenians in the early third century B.C., but it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that appetizers started to catch on. Different cultures used a mix of drinks, seafood, meat, bread, nuts, cheese, fruits, vegetables, salads, dips, and many more components to plate up their pre-dinner dishes.


Appetizers weren’t always known as appetizers. Early versions of what we know appetizers to be were called “hors d’oeuvres” which is French for “outside of work”. The history of appetizers has evolved into emphasizing the main dish by stimulating one’s appetite through the appearance, smell, and taste of the appetizers.


The Romans had something called aperitifs—a liquid appetizer that usually incorporated alcohol. Aperitifs were not only a great way to get the dinner started but also served to help with the digestion process while bringing people together (since it was traditionally served out of a single shared glass). Aperitifs still exist today but are usually accompanied by food-based appetizers.


Colonia America's early appetizers were made up of a mix of pickled vegetables, salted fish, and hard cheeses to accompany drinks. Since they didn’t have refrigerators, food preservation was incredibly important. Pickling and salting were two very popular methods of the time and satisfied taverngoers with bold flavors before the main meal. Appetizers slowly evolved from salted fish and pickled vegetables to bite-sized pieces that could be enjoyed with just our fingers.


The Rise of Finger Food

Modern-day appetizers are all about ease, flavor, and indulgence. Finger food really started taking off during the Prohibition era. Speakeasies, which were essentially illegal hidden “underground” bars, usually didn’t have full kitchens and couldn’t serve full meals. Their solution was an array of finger foods that kept people happy and fueled to drink and dance the night away. Once the ban on alcohol was lifted, people continued having cocktails and appetizers at home and started expecting the same experience from restaurants.


The Modern-Day of Appetizers

The rise of finger food and cocktails after the Prohibition gave way to the modern-day appetizers we see today. Certain dishes became popular choices for parties and hosted events. To this day, dishes like deviled eggs, pigs in a blanket, and mini sandwiches can still be found at parties around the nation. Restaurants also started to step up their appetizer game. Dishes like soft pretzels, mini tacos, onion rings, and cheese curds were created to satisfy guests and start them off before dinner. At TimeOut Tavern, we offer all these dishes plus more under our “Starters” section! Check out our menu and find an appetizer you want to try. Come on down to Chestnut Street, La Crescent Minnesota, and enjoy happy hour by pairing one of our appetizers with a cocktail of your choosing. See you there!

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