The verb stuzzicare means to tap repeatedly, poke or pick with something pointed, which might be a bad idea – a finger in a wound, for example – or a relief. Stuzzicarsi i denti means to pick something from between teeth. That gives us the object – a toothpick (stuzzicadenti), something missing from trattoria tables post-pandemic, understandably, but terrible for teeth that invite spinach. The verb stuzzicare also means to awaken wishes, feelings, curiosity or appetite. It can be used as an adjective, too: an idea, book, crisp or olive can be stuzzicante (tantalising). This brings us to the name stuzzichini, or tasty things to tickle and wake up the appetite in preparation for what is to come, be it a meal or more tasty things.
I wish I could go back in time, to feel once again the power of sitting on a high stool at the bar in my granny’s pub, and to reassure everyone I had no intention of spoiling my appetite. Quite the opposite, in fact; the cheese-and-onion crisps and dry-roasted peanuts were preparation for Sunday lunch, to be eaten on the small, brass-topped tables that, as soon as the pub closed at 3pm, were pushed together to make a long table. While I’m at it, I’ll travel to another point in time, 15 years after the high stool, taking with me Rebecca May Johnson’s Against Roast Chicken: An Hors d’Oeuvres Theory of Cooking. This beautiful essay, the result of watching and thinking about the 1990 film Mermaids, is full of insight about the traps of domesticity and building “the kitchen you need to survive, as weird and unnatural as you want it”. Also pleasure, especially the idea that the “portability” of the snacks and cocktail-stick meals prepared by Mrs Flax, played by Cher, “liberate the diner from the table (and the cook from work) and allows a different relationship to space”. That, “finger food facilitates flight”.
Books are weightless when you fly in time, so I will also take Nigella Lawson’s How to Eat, which contains more pleasure and more wisdom than most philosophy books, not least her reminder that you can never have enough cocktail sausages and that for a party she generally cooks 200. And the book of Antipasti e Salse by Lisa Biondi (who you might remember from a previous column as being the fictional creation of a food magnate intent on selling margarine, pickled vegetables and mayonnaise).
It goes without saying that you can forget the cauliflower, if you prefer, or you could chop it up along with other crisp vegetables and put on a plate with however many other things you like. Other suggestions are bowls of crisps, peanuts, Twiglets, little sandwiches or milk rolls filled with salami, or egg and tuna, or Nigella’s butter and Marmite spread. I would usually suggest fried food, too, or Anna Tobias’s anchovy puffs, but I am not turning the oven on that night. Of course, there should be lots of drink, much of it bubbles, and music; I am planning to dance this Christmas, starting with a tribute to Cher dancing with her daughters at the end of Mermaids, and Beverly Moss in Abigail’s Party, and ending like Liza Minnelli. Last thing, if you have skipped the kaleidoscope, I would still offer optional cocktail sticks for those who don’t like to use their fingers, or who get something stuck between their teeth that needs picking out.
Caleidoscopio di stuzzichini – kaleidoscope of appetisers
A selection of salami and cheese, mortadella, olives, gherkins, preserved artichokes, pickled vegetables, hard-boiled eggs
Cut the base off the cauliflower so it sits flat on a large plate or board, covered in foil for extra disco, if you like. Cut your chosen ingredients into bite-sized pieces and then, matchmaking them as you like, impale them on cocktail sticks and stick these into the cauliflower to make a ‘kaleidoscope’.