1950s Archive

Viennese Memoir

Lenten Journey

Originally Published February 1959

No pendulum ever swung from extreme to extreme as quickly as the Viennese temperament. Capable of skyhigh jubilation and bottomless despair, the Viennese passed instantly from anger to burning love and from the heights of optimism to deepest gloom. Only they could cry while they laughed and laugh while they shook their fists at each other. Their sizzling, screaming quarrels always resolved themselves peacefully in the Kaffeehaus, and arch enemies ended by drinking Brüderschaft with each other—pledging undying brotherhood.

After enjoying the gayest, longest, and most frivolous carnival in Europe, the Viennese worked themselves up to the final hilarities of Fastnacht, or Shrove Tuesday, and promptly went to the other extreme by retiring into the quietest, most humble, and penitent Lent. Everything stopped instantly. They gave up balls, dinners, masquerades, and at least half of the food they had been eating. Romances and “fleerts” came to an abrupt end, even engagements and weddings had to wait until after Easter. During Lent, no one in Vienna would have dared to fall in love or to look favorably upon the lighter side of life, least of all upon a six-course dinner. The midday meal went down to three light courses; Gabelfrühstück and Jause, the midmorning and late-afternoon meals, disappeared completely, and dinner became a mere bite. This way of life persisted unchanged until the Second World War.

Herr and Frail Baronin took this opportunity to make their winter Reise, or trip. While the Viennese turned their thoughts to Himmel and Hölle, heaven and hell, and packed away their dominoes and masks, while the Casanovas, Don Juans, and Romeos discarded their assumed personalities and returned to humdrum, unromantic reality. Herr and Fran Baron in sat in their railway carriage, in proper introspection, and fasted over a meagerly stocked Reise Nécossaire, or tea basket.

At any other time of the year a journey undertaken by a Viennese for any purpose whatever would have turned into a gastronomic tour, but not the winter Reise. They were too full of good intentions and vows of Lenten abstinence to indulge in such worldly pleasures. Herr and Frau Baronin went straight from Vienna to Meran, a town in that part of northern Italy which had once been Austria and still tried to act as though it were. Their Lent was now kept in Nord Italien instead of Süd Tirol, but Meran remained the same even though an o had been added to its name.

Meran was winter home away from home for so many elderly Viennese that the town looked and felt like a little piece of Vienna. There were innumerable hotels and pensions, which enabled the feuders and rivals of the recent Viennese season to avoid one another. If their paths happened to cross on the promenade or at the concert, they could always look the other way. Half Meran was always busily looking the other way, in one direction, while the other half was doing the same thing in another direction.

The hotel chambermaids served as couriers and messengers for the guests as well as sources of news. The staffs of all the hotels had to keep their ears to the ground and their eyes open if they wanted to hold their Viennese clientele. Herr and Frau Baronin were immediately engulfed in all the gossip and scandal that only a small town can generate. Before they had even left the railroad station, they knew that Frau von Renk was being visited in her room by a Doktor whose interest in her was rather more mercantile than medical, they knew that the food was inedible this year, and that it had been positively confirmed that old Frau Cosma was cooking in her room. By the time Herr and Frau Baronin had reached their hotel and unpacked their luggage, they knew all there was to know in Meran.

The news about Frau Cosma was doubly shocking because they all were guilty of the same thing. Although the Viennese gossiped about one another's activities, they all indulged in the same exciting, illicit, and, to them, indispensable winter sport—cooking. The most formal, refined, and otherwise wholly admirable Viennese stooped to the most artful tricks in order to cook in their rooms. Even during Lent, when fasting was uppermost in their minds, they cooked from force of habit, though limiting themselves to light egg and cheese dishes, a fact which made their activities all the more obvious. Their luggage,when they crossed the Italian border, included china, glass, linen, silver, photographs, scatter rugs, and endless other paraphernalia with which to entertain one another and create a cluttered homelike atmosphere in their rooms. But most important of all, no Viennese could move an inch without a complicated apparatus known as a Spiritus Lampe and bottles of dangerous inflammable alcohol that leaked through their trunks and was often mistakenly used as a tub or lotion.

Ostensibly, they brought along the spirit lamp to heat the water for the hot water bag, but actually it enabled the elderly travelers to indulge their passion: They could cook and they could entertain. They could all have easily afforded the expense of room service or visits to tearooms and coffeeshops, but nothing of the sort was thinkable. They had to carry the highly dangerous alcohol (which often took fire before reaching the Lampe) so that they could brew tea or coffee, chocolate, hot Punsch, or a tisane.

Some wise manufacturer, driven by the accidents that befell all traveling Viennese, invented a little white cake called Meta. It was a solid fuel that looked somewhat like a lump of sugar, and the lumps came neatly packed in boxes. Meta cakes were placed in little pans under every imaginable type of utensil and were ignited to create an entirely new art—the an of cooking over Meta. But the travelers still preferred the old art of cooking over Spiritus to any newfangled invention.

Subscribe to Gourmet