Ratified in 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned the manufacture, sale and transportation of liquor. Even before the law took effect in 1920, Congress passed the Volstead Act, or National Prohibition Act, which outlawed the sale of “intoxicating beverages”—defined as any drink containing 0.5 percent or more of alcohol.
Of course, no amount of legislation could transform all Americans into teetotalers; instead, Prohibition simply drove alcohol consumption underground. Millions of people in small towns and large cities imbibed at secret taverns and bars called speakeasies. Although the exact origins of the term are unknown, it might have arisen because prospective patrons had to whisper—or “speakeasy”—through a small opening in a door to enter the illegal establishments, providing the name of the person who had sent them.
As law enforcement officials shut down countless bars and saloons across the country, speakeasies sprang up overnight, and by 1925 tens of thousands had opened in New York City alone. Many were drab, makeshift saloons in basements or tenements located in shabby parts of town. Some, however, were fine restaurants in their own right, including New York City’s swanky 21 Club, which featured two bars, a dance floor, dining rooms on two levels and underground passageways leading to a secret wine cellar.
To help soak up the booze and drive up sales, some enterprising speakeasy proprietors began offering more than just gin fizzes, whiskey smashes, martinis and other popular cocktails of the day. Rather than heavy meals, their inebriated customers were given assorted bite-sized canapés to snack on while mingling in the illicit dens’ loud, crowded rooms.
It was also during this period that the custom of hosting cocktail parties at home became fashionable. The rise of these intimate events led to the popularization of an increasingly wide array of finger foods. Hosts paraded out such popular culinary delights as lobster canapés, caviar rolls, crabmeat cocktails, shrimp patties, oyster toast, jellied anchovy molds, radish roses, devilled eggs and savory cheese balls. Sweet selections included fruit cocktail cups topped with powdered sugar or marshmallows.
Even after the 1933 repeal of the 18th Amendment, the practice of serving finger foods at restaurants, bars and cocktail parties lived on and quickly became a popular American culinary tradition.
Care to whip up some Prohibition-era finger foods at your next social gathering? Try out these recipes from Fannie Farmer’s “Boston Cooking-School Cook Book,” which was published in 1918 and widely used in the United States throughout the 1920s.