How to Create a 1930s Dinner Party Menu

By: Sara Elliott

A vintage tablescape will make your '30s party the real deal!
A vintage tablescape will make your '30s party the real deal!
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

The U.S. stock market crash of 1929 greatly affected the landscape of entertaining for the decade of the 1930s. Families who were able to afford a maid or housekeeper a few years earlier were forced to scale back. The recipe books of the period helped hostesses do more with less by offering up classy and refined dishes that were still relatively inexpensive and easy to put together. That's a challenge in any decade, but at a time when a host's serving pieces may have been courtesy of a Depression glass promotion put on by the local gas station, having friends over for a shindig could be a curious mix of the chic and sensible.

Remember, too, this was way before fat became a dirty word and people learned to fear carbs. You can probably put together a respectable 1930s menu by just bathing everything in butter or cream. Keep the nutritional information to yourself, and you have a sure winner.

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Using foods in season was an important menu consideration in the 1930s, too. The Global food economy didn't exist then, so if you wanted peaches for cobbler, your dinner party had better be in June or July or you'd be eating your canned bounty from last season. Being able to add fresh cherries to a gelatin mold or make a dessert using tropical fruits like bananas or fresh pineapple were considered indulgences, too. If you lived in California, you might have offered guests a sliced avocado appetizer. If you were living in Kansas, though, you likely only knew "alligator pears" from magazines. If an avocado did make it to your local market, it would have cost a big chunk of you meal budget. The same goes for other regional delicacies like asparagus, soft-shelled crab and crawfish. Depression-era soup kitchens were common in large cities, but you don't have to limit your 1930s dinner party menu to thin broth and fried potatoes. Many areas around the country were lucky enough to be surrounded by family farms where reasonably priced ingredients were relatively abundant for sale or barter.

With sketchy phone service, no television and no Internet, parties in the 1930s were the big entertainment venues of the day. People partied like they meant it. Guests came to eat, catch up on the local gossip and forget their troubles. This was a time when people were listening to the radio for the latest news and yearning for the lavish lifestyles of their favorite movie idols. Daring mobsters were making big headlines with their turf wars and their supply of Prohibition bathtub gin. Haunting blues music and moody jazz by legends like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday and big band favorites like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey helped define the distinctive sounds of the era.

Whether you want an elegant, small gathering or a large, raucous brawl, you can find 1930s recipes and fun ideas to fit the bill. On the next page, we'll investigate a few foods your granny (or her mom) may have considered just the thing for a special soiree.

Popular 1930s Dinner Party Foods

If you have a fondue pot in your cupboard or a pasta maker gathering dust in your garage, you know firsthand that food prep is vulnerable to the whims of fashion. We may be getting our recipes off the Internet these days, but in wanting to try the newest gadget or cooking process, we aren't that different from our grandmothers. Today it may be goat cheese and marinated figs, but whatever the latest food fad happens to be, in a couple of decades it will become a culinary footnote in the cultural summary of the times. To get a good take on 1930s party foods, you have to explore the trends. They may seem tame today, but back then, they were oh-so chichi. Think of them as the food superstars that could make or break a host's reputation:

  • Devil it - Think deviled eggs, deviled ham (or ham salad) and deviled chicken, and you've got the general idea. Grind it up, mix it with mayo and serve it on a cracker or piped into the hollow of a hard cooked egg and you have elegant finger food. Our Spicy Deviled Eggs are a great place to start.
  • Give it some jiggle - That kid-friendly gelatin mold in your pantry was once so fashionable no 1930s food fest would have been complete without it. You had to have an ice box or refrigerator to make a gelatin mold, which made it a dish that required modern technology. Gelatin molds also sported ritzy ingredients like mayonnaise, nuts and tropical or seasonal fruits. Our Cranberry-Apple Gelatin Salad is a good representative example. If you were really on the cutting edge of food fashion, you might have served aspic -- a savory gelatin mold using ingredients like tomato juice, cream, salmon, crab or minced chicken. Aspics were served cold like the fruity molds you're used to, so they were often warm weather or light afternoon fare.
  • Make it into a ring - If you've discovered how easy it is to slice and serve Bundt cake, you can see why placing food in a ring was considered convenient and attractive. The shape was considered unique, and it could be achieved using a simple mold and inexpensive ingredients. In the 1930s, gelatin molds and aspics were often ring shaped and served with assorted vegetables in the open center. Rings were also made out of rice and even pasta. Want to create the right note for your party? Give our Festive Cranberry Ring Mold a try.
  • Stuff it - Filling the hollowed core of any of a number of vegetables with chopped or ground ingredients was also huge. Recipes like tomatoes stuffed with chicken salad, bell peppers stuffed with ground beef and mushrooms stuffed with bacon and breadcrumbs were popular. We've got the perfect stuffed tomato dish to show you how it's done. This one's delicious and pretty to look at: Pesto-Pasta Stuffed Tomatoes.
  • Form it into a loaf - Meatloaf may get groans from your kids, but way back when, serving a loaf of magical meat was too cool. Lamb loaf, veal loaf and salmon loaf were all considered party food. A hostess could layer a loaf pan with ingredients like bacon, mushrooms and even mashed potatoes for a striped effect that was bound to elicit oohs and ahhs from guests.

Using the right ingredients was important, too: A lavish shrimp cocktail appetizer like our Pineapple-Ginger Shrimp Cocktail, carried as much cache in the 1930s as it does today. Including ingredients like lobster, squab, oysters, tongue, crab, fruit punch, prunes, peaches, pineapple, honeydew melon and orange marmalade in the menu helped gentrify the meal and add that touch of elegant refinement that was so important. A 1930s dinner party menu would probably also have included dishes that mirrored what Hollywood considered sophisticated European taste with items like scones, crumpets, cucumber or watercress sandwiches, salmon croquettes, trifles, tortes and meringues. A smart hostess could also show her sophistication by serving big city menu items like Waldorf salad or curried lamb.

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Now that you understand a little about the food, let's explore some ways to make your 1930s-era party look and sound as good as it tastes.

1930s Era Dinner Party Ideas

For a crash course in making a 1930s party the talk of your social circle, all you need to do is review the fiction or movies of the period. Nero Wolfe, the rotund gourmet detective in Rex Stout's enormously popular series of 1930s novels, is as good at crafting meal options as he is at solving murders. For some unique ideas, check out the Nero Wolfe Cookbook available through Viking Press. It explores the wit and cooking savvy of this '30s gourmet gumshoe.

You can also use any one of the many 1930s themes to unify your party:

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  • Invite a few matineeidols - During the depression, a night at the movies was the perfect escape from money woes. If this resonates with you, why not try a classic movie star theme? You can have your guests dress up as their favorite stars of old, or just display old movie posters prominently. Name your menu items after stars, and make bold star name tags with classic photos for the backs of your dining chairs.
  • Jazz it up - Don't forget the music when you're planning your party. Blues, jazz and big band swing were all keen in the 1930s, and there's no better way to strike the right mood than with authentic music. If you're a music historian, then take the time to compile your play list with care; if you just want something fast but authentic, there are style, artist and decade specific CDs on the market that will have your toes tapping in no time.
  • Make it a matinee - If you think your decor needs a little more period panache, why not use your flat screen to create a fun matinee feel. Play some classic 1930s movies, and turn the sound down low. You can even choose a movie medley from some of the best genre films of the time.
  • Serve luncheon or teainstead - During the 1930s, hosting a big dinner party may have been hard on already strained finances, but turning the affair into a luncheon, tea or brunch buffet meant the cook could serve lighter fare, which left room in the budget for making the table look scrumptious, too. A creamy lace tablecloth, silver candlesticks, crystal (or glass) accents and a large centerpiece of fresh cut flowers could dress an elegant table. A lighter meal also meant less work for the lady of the house who may have been pulling everything together without her trusty maid or part-time cook to lend a hand.

Depression-era party planners were often working alone and watching their pennies (much like us). The idea was to make entertaining look effortlessly elegant, an illusion that helped folks deal with economic hardship and convince themselves that better times were just around the corner.

1930s Dinner Party Menu: Lots More Information

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  • Affordable Accoutrements. "1930's Dinner Party!" 9/23/09. (7/12/11). http://affordableaccoutrements.blogspot.com/2009/09/1930s-dinner-party.html
  • Amazon.com. "The Nero Wolfe Cookbook." (7/12/11). http://www.amazon.com/Nero-Wolfe-Cookbook-Rex-Stout/dp/1888952245/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1310849008&sr=1-1
  • Chowhound. "Home Cooking." 7/25/07. (7/12/11). http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/424521
  • Dahnke, Marye. "Kitchen Fresh Ideas." Kraft-Phenix Cheese Corporation. 1933.
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