Cocktails and canapés with the stars of the silent screen

Jenny Hammerton and Nathalie Moris
Jenny Hammerton and Nathalie Morris – our glamorous hostesses, with Betty Balfours in hand

If HG Wells could fix it for you to travel back to the silent era, you surely would, right? And while no doubt it would be enlightening to talk shop in the studios and editing rooms of 1920s Hollywood, it’s arguable that the real action would be in the nightclubs and hotel suites.  Take it from me, the catering would be … interesting.

Many of you will know Jenny Hammerton and Nathalie Morris. Jenny Hammerton works as a film archivist, and runs the wonderful Silver Screen Suppers site on the side. She’s researching a forthcoming book of recipes from classic film stars, you see. Nathalie Morris works at the BFI as an archive curator, and also blogs about food: the Food on Film site recreates meals from movies. She is working with Jenny on a different book, along the same lines, but dedicated to the most important meal of the day – the cocktail hour.

Such a noble pursuit deserves all our support, of course, so myself and a few other selfless souls tripped up to Nathalie’s flat on the weekend to sample some cocktails and canapés. As the evening was undertaken in the name of research, not simple fun, here is what we learned.

  • We may remember Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson as health freaks, but they let their hair down occasionally, culinary speaking. Garbo layered bacon over healthsome cottage cheese and rye bread to create a rather unwieldy canapé. Swanson deviated from the ways of brown rice for, what else, tempting bites topped with caviar.
  • Edith Roberts‘ sweetcorn fritters require a LOT of lard for deep-frying. Fear not, though, as our group couldn’t quite choose between the lighter veggie versions and the lardy originals in the final analysis.
  • Solid and unexciting to look at, they may have been, but Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers’ potato and nut croquettes were seriously savoury – with a rich seam of nuts down the centre. Unexpectedly toothsome.
  • Zasu Pitts is an idiosyncratic one. We all loved her omelette with hot spanish sauce. But the Greed star cheated us of any actual spice in that sauce – hot in name only. And there was baking powder – yes, baking powder – in the omelette.
  • The parties thrown by Marion Davies may have gone down in Hollywood legend, but her cheese patties were unlikely to get anyone hot under the collar – tasty yes, but rather chunky and bland for a canapé. Perhaps they were just there to soak up the booze?

A Betty Balfour cocktail. Photograph: Jenny Hammerton
A Betty Balfour cocktail. Photograph: Jenny Hammerton
  • Speaking of which, knock back more than one Betty Balfour cocktail and you would definitely be utterly Squibsy.
  • Drinks parties require bread-stick type things. I’m going to be blunt and say that Florence Vidor‘s cheesy versions were more pleasing to the tastebuds than Norma Shearer‘s oatmeal sticks. Though in Shearer’s defence the sticks were far better fresh from the oven and perfect for swiping through …
  • Joan Crawford‘s rich and creamy dip, which as Caroline Jones pointed out, tasted like nothing so much as McDonald’s. The jury is out as to whether it was evoking a Big Mac, or a Filet-o-Fish, but we suspect it’s all in the gherkins.
Caroline Jones samples Joan Crawford's dip – she's lovin' it
Caroline Jones samples Joan Crawford’s dip – she’s lovin’ it
  • Talking of pickles and Crawford, her little sword-skewers of folded salami and pickled onions were hugely popular.
  • The prettiest canapé on the table had to be Dorothy Sebastian‘s anchovy canapés, adorned with chopped boiled egg, the white and yolk separated by a single caper. Classy.
  • The source of Douglas Fairbanks’ boundless energy? Possibly Mary Pickford‘s hefty, chompable nut-filled chcocolate pralines …
  • … which nevertheless could not quite edge out Janet Gaynor‘s delicate, moreish ice-box cookies in the contest for best sweet.

What we didn’t learn:

  • Who on earth is Anne Knight (Jenny, please help) and why would anyone want to eat her offering of iced bouillon, ie cold veg stock laced with sherry? One must take one’s hat off to Knight, though: the bouillon was accompanied by some astonishing canapé craft: finickety bouquets of baked bread and butter called imperial sticks.

Just look at the damage we did:

The buffet – after
The buffet – after


Now pour yourself a drink and enjoy these snaps of the evening, and the food!

The party ended in the best way – thanks so much to our elegant and generous hosts and best of luck with the books!

5 thoughts on “Cocktails and canapés with the stars of the silent screen”

  1. Ah, Pamela, thank you so much for a wonderful write up of our Silent Stars Cocktails and Canapes Party. It really was a humdinger.

    I am ashamed to say that I am a very bad film archivist, I should have double checked my facts about Anne Knight. I blame my new contact lenses for the fact that I misread the name of the star who proposed the (quite frankly gruesome) Iced Bouillon. It was June Knight, not Anne Knight and of course, June was not a silent star. She infiltrated our menu with her crazy cold vegetable stock offering! The Imperial Sticks were cute though.

    Note to anyone who is considering this – when an optician proposes that you wear one contact lens to correct your short sightedness and one to correct your long sightedness, you won’t be able to see anything much at all!

    Yours – Mr Magoo x

    1. Thanks Jenny. All clear now – as one Mr Magoo to another I sympathise with your mixup. So glad also, of course, to learn that iced bouillon is not actually a staple of silent era parties. Phewee. And thanks for all the lovely nibbles and drinks, too!

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