Holidays at the Antarctic Hotel

The mariners stranded in the icy wastes of Antarctica, where, as an 1850 edition of Household Words reports, “crashing mountains of ice, heaped up together, have made a chaos round their ships”; the mariners icily bearded, enjoying no company besides animals and birds white as though “they too were born of the desolate snow and frost” – how did they observe the year-end holidays? With merriment and good cheer, as it turns out.

The 1841 South Pole expedition was the very picture of high spirits on the high seas. The crew celebrated Christmas in grand English style, unfriendly environs notwithstanding. Such animal life as existed there paid no heed to them. Seals basked sleepily on floating chunks of ice. The black curve of a whale’s back peeked through a fissure and disappeared again. Two ships, the “Terror” and the “Erebus,” occupied a small opening in ice pack seven hundred miles wide. Ice covered the decks; a dense, gray fog, the ships. Except for flocks of shrieking terns that sometimes passed by, all was still and silent.

A giant formation brooded over the ships, and this the sailors christened the “Christmas Berg.” In its shadow they feasted on roast beef, roast goose and the “homely never-to-be-forgotten plum pudding.” And though the beasts had drawn “their first breath on the fern-clad plateau of the Waimate, near the Bay Islands of New Zealand,” and not in the dales of England, they were nevertheless tasty. The sailors followed their sumptuous dinner with a Divine service.

New Year occasioned more elaborate amusement. By then the ships had dipped south of the Antarctic circle and had become frozen fast, more so than they were at Christmas. Such imprisonment did little to dampen the sailors’ mirth, however. With “ice anchors and hawsers” they lashed their ships to a large floe. On it they fashioned “a quadrangle space … for a dance.” This fantastic dance floor at the foot of a descending staircase of ice was christened “Antarctic Hotel” and “bore on a sign-board, fixed to a pale, the words ‘Pilgrims of the Ocean’ and on the reverse ‘Pioneers of Science.’” “An elevated chair … of the same substance” stood in its center. Adjacent to the ballroom the sailors carved a refreshment room, in which bottles of grog and wine covered a table chiseled from the surrounding ice. More substantial refreshments were available as well. Two young seamen acting as waiters handed out “genuine Antarctic ices” on a tray.

These festivities lacked neither music nor female companionship. Cheerful song was provided by a group of sailors blowing horns and singing. A few innovative souls brought up pigs from the ships’ hold and, seizing them by the ears, “pinched them until the hapless grunts united their cries in concert with the horns.” Though she could not heed these dulcet tones, “Haidee,” a snow-woman and the belle of the ball with her head full of ice ringlets, presided over the goings-on from the gangway of the “Terror,” looking on in mute approval. As on Christmas Day, the sailors feasted lavishly on “roast goose and roast beef,”
but mince pies took the place of Yuletide plum pudding.

If winter’s chill should have you stuck in place for the holidays, a tasty plum pudding ought to cheer you at least as much as it did any ice-bound English sailor. The recipe below, which appears in Practical Recipes (1909), will have the “Haidee” in your life melting with anticipation. And if you’d like to serve something restorative to your snowy friend, you can throw in a frozen pudding for good measure.

Very Rich Plum Pudding

(Virginia recipe) 10 eggs, 1 pound each of chopped suet, chopped to a powder, raisins (stoned), currants (washed and dried). Candied orange and lemon peel and citron mixed one-half pound. 1 nutmeg, a little salt, a teaspoon of mixed spices, cloves, cinnamon and mace. 1 common glass of sherry wine (best). 1 common glass of brandy (best). 1 pound of stale bread crumbs, 2 or 3 tablespoons of flour. Boil 4 hours and burn brandy over it. Light the brandy just as it goes on the table. Eat with cold sauce.

Frozen Pudding

1 pint of rich milk; 2 cups of sugar (powdered); 1 cup of boiled rice; 2 tablespoons of gelatine; 1 quart of rich cream; 1 pound of candied cherries; 4 tablespoons of best sherry wine.

Boil the milk and thicken with the rice, stirring constantly for 15 minutes. Add gelatine while hot and permit it to get cool before adding cream and sherry. Freeze 10 minutes before adding wine, then add wine and stir in thoroughly and freeze altogether, and turn out the same as ice cream. If not frozen carefully, it will not be so delicate, as you do not want it stiff and hard.

Fish Pudding for Fearless Flyers

Some time before 1879 the peasants of the remote and mountainous district of Telemarken, Norway, grew tired of using their skies solely for traveling along snow-clogged highways. They set out to transform this dull wintertime routine into a competitive and pleasurable sport by devising wild races and stunts that tested participants’ powers of vaulting. News of these hyperboreal capers reached nearby towns and districts, creating such a stir that soon annual competitions came to be held outside Christiania (present-day Oslo). In his 1905 book, Ski-running, D.M.M. Crichton Somerville describes these meets as “very ludicrious, the hill being neither steep nor long, the competitors riding astride their poles down the track, and only jumping, if jumping it could be called, a few yards.” The decidedly unspectacular nature of these feats spelled the competition’s early demise.

Yet the competition did not die in vain. Norwegians felt themselves bitten by the ski bug. A few years later they once again took to the slopes, this time carrying “long, stout” staffs that imbued these new jumping contests with a comedic element. “Starting from the summit,” Somerville writes, “riding their poles … like witches on broomsticks, checking the speed with frantic efforts, they slid downwards to the dreaded platform or ‛hop.’” At that point they were supposed to leap, but, as Somerville observes, they instead “trickled” to a soft landing. These flaccid performances did little to diminish the competition’s appeal, however. Curious spectators who flocked to Christiania from far and wide were left with the impression that these displays represented veritable wonders of the world.

The trend sparked by this world wonder swept Christiania and environs. Somerville reports that the city’s youth abandoned their favorite haunts – “billiard rooms” and “ill-ventilated cafes” – for the slopes. Even women suffering “terribly from anemia” braved icy forests and their slick, precipitous terrain. Indeed, nary a brumal day passed without the sight of a hillside dotted with leaping and sliding Norwegians, “a race of robust men and healthy women” rescued from the wasting influences of urban life thanks to this salubrious newfangled sport.

Wholesome exertions require wholesome food. Exhausted from a day’s snowy recreation, Norwegians no doubt repaired to their homes for a hearty helping of fish pudding. Should you wish to make this signature Nordic dish part of your après-ski, this recipe, which appears in The Ann Arbor Cookbook
(1899), should leave you feeling stuffed to the gills.

Norwegian Fish Pudding

Scrape raw white fish to a pulp, add salt, pepper and a little grated onion; rub and beat most thoroughly, add milk little by little, mashing (with a potato masher) and finally beating to a froth with a spoon. Add now 1 or 2 eggs well beaten and a little butter, (when completed it should be about as thick as cream). Bake brown in bread tin or steam it thoroughly. Serve it sliced, hot or cold.

Bread to Make a Hungarian Rhapsodic

Today’s weight-obsessed gastronomes, ever mindful of carbohydrates and calories, generally demur when dinner rolls are passed their way. Yet history reveals that such reticence is unusual. Centuries ago, the attitude prevailed that a meal without bread was no meal at all. Even kings made a show of their baked goods. When in 1663 Transylvanian Prince Mihály Apafi invited the entire Ottoman army to dine with him after a battle, he rolled out, among other tidbits, two-score enormous boules. So impressed with this display was the Turkish world traveler, Evliya Celebi, that he recorded it in his journal. “The meadows were covered with Hungarian carpets,” he writes, “onto which forty giant loaves were placed.” The king’s means of conveying the loaves to the hungry soldiers Calebi found equally impressive. “Each one had to be drawn on an oxcart,” he continues, for “each … was twenty paces long, and five paces wide, and as high as a full-grown man.”

The bread of Eastern Europe impressed travelers with more than its size. Writing a hundred years later, another adventurer, Robert Towson, praised the bread of Hungary for its toothsomeness. “Nowhere else did I eat bread that was lighter, whiter, and tastier than this,” he declared. Baking such heavenly bread was no easy feat; this chore peasants performed but once a week, on Saturday, so a fresh loaf would be available for the Sabbath. It was an all-day event. Kneading alone took a good two hours and required considerable strength. The dough had to rise overnight, which meant that it wasn’t until the wee hours the next day that it entered the oven.

As difficult as this chore of baking was, Hungarian families considered it anything but. No peasant woman dared neglect her bubbling pot of sourdough, her bread’s leaven. In fact, each new bride was given a small lump of sourdough by her mother, which she used to bake the first loaf for her husband. So dear were these loaves that only the man of the house could slice them. In Catholic households, he would mark them with the sign of the cross before brandishing his bread knife. If any pieces fell to the floor, they were promptly picked up and kissed in apology.

Baking day wasn’t without its charms. A portion of dough was usually kept in reserve to be baked at the front of the oven, close to the flame. This imparted a smoky, tangy flavor to the resulting bread, which Hungarians call lángos. Some Hungarians still prepare this morsel, though they nowadays typically fry it and serve it with anything from chopped fresh dill to ewe’s milk cheese. The traditional recipe for lángos that appears below is taken from Culinaria: Hungary

Lángos

5 oz mealy potatoes
1 3/4 cakes compressed yeast
3 tbsp confectioner’s sugar
1 2/3 cups milk
3 1/3 cups flour
3 1/2 tbsp oil
Salt

Oil for deep frying

Cooks the potatoes in their skins. Dissolve the yeast and the sugar in a scant 1/2 cup of lukewarm milk, and stand in a warm place for 10 minutes. Peel the potatoes and mash while still warm. Sift the flour into a bowl. Make a well in the center, and pour in the milk and yeast mixture. Adds the potatoes and the oil, and knead to a smooth dough with the remaining likewarm milk, adding a little salt. Sprinkle over a little flour, and cover with a dish towel. Leave in a warm place for about 1 hour until the dough has doubled in size.

Pour some oil in a skillet of about 2 1/2 inches height. Tear off a piece of the risen dough, and shape it into a round flat cake about 3/4 inch thick. Fry in the hot oil (do not cover the skillet) until golden, then turn over carefully and fry the cake on the other side.

Season with salt, and eat while still hot. Delicious spread with sour cream or garlic juice.