Click here to read a slide-show essay on hors d'oeuvres.
The term hors d'oeuvre means "outside the work" in French, and it was first applied to food during the Enlightenment era, when minor dishes were served in addition to the soups and roasts and timbales of a grand dinner. But at a contemporary cocktail party, the hors d'oeuvres are the work. And in today's restaurants, where small plates and "snacks" are fashionable, there is increasing emphasis on creating the perfect mouthful.
What, then, is the ideal hors d'oeuvre? The best ones follow a few rules: They should be easy to eat in one or two bites. They should pass the silk-blouse test and not erupt, dribble, crumble, or otherwise fall apart when picked up. Finally, hors d'oeuvres should be punchy little treats—the cocktail hour is no time for subtlety or thoughtful savoring.
In addition, the best appetizers typically fall into one of a few classic categories. To help you evaluate your options, I polled some big-city caterers and put together a taxonomy of the modern hors d'oeuvre—from "things wrapped in bacon" to "things on a stick." Ideally, a cocktail party spread draws from several of these families; I surveyed some of the best options at a soiree of my own.