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Bolivers

Our beloved camp storyteller, Chuck Stead, writes about a holiday tradition with humble roots…

Bolivers, my dad Walt told us, was what they called the fried bread dough that my grandmother offered as a regular meal when there was nothing else to eat during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Growing up, it was my family’s tradition that we ate bolivers every Christmas morning before unwrapping our gifts. One usually poured molasses or maple syrup over the boliver.

As Christmas drew near, Walt would make a great pillow of bread dough and then park it in a covered pot on the steam radiator so as to rise overnight. He usually did this three nights in advance of Christmas. Ricky Cramshaw always came over to have a boliver after his folks unwrapped their presents. Through the years various other friends joined in with this tradition and chomped down on a sticky, chewy boliver. Watching Walt stretch a wad of bread dough as thin as he could, and then toss it into a sizzling pan of fat, was also part of the tradition. After one ate a boliver, there was a period of sitting and falling half asleep as the boliver settled like warm sand into your belly. Truth is, no one really much cared for bolivers themselves – it was all about tradition…the tradition that was set down by Gram Hulga Stead.

One year, the day after Christmas, Ricky Cramshaw and I were playing with these wonderful electric Lionel trains I had received. That year, Tessie was not proud of the fact that they had bought me ‘used’ trains, but actually I couldn’t have been happier. My grandfather (who passed when I was four) had worked in the Ramapo Iron Works shop on railroading equipment, so I equated the old-style toy trains with him. Ricky and I were configuring a track set-up when Walt called us up for bolivers.

In the kitchen he first powdered his hands with flour and then started stretching two wads of bread dough. He told us this was his mother’s way of keeping the family eating during the Depression. Ricky asked him, “Why was everybody so depressed back then?”

Walt tossed our bolivers into the snapping and crackling hot fat. Then he looked at us and said, “Well sir, back then, a lot of rich people fixed it so that most people ended up stone-broke. Pretty soon no one had jobs or if they did, they didn’t earn much money and they couldn’t feed their families. It was a bad time.”

Ricky said, “But your mother fed everybody, right?”

“Well, she fed us just like other mothers found a way to feed their families. Bolivers is poor people food.”

Ricky said, “So, I guess that means we are poor, huh?”

“Nope, it means that at this time of season we remember our poor background and maybe that makes us a little kinder to those in need.”

He had already flipped our bolivers and was now forking them out of the spitting fat. He plopped one down on a plate for each of us and set them on the table. We buttered and poured maple syrup over them. He made another one that cooked fast enough for him to join us. As we sat there eating the bolivers, Walt admitted something to us both, he said, “You know, I don’t think anyone really likes bolivers, but at this time of year we have our traditions.”

We agreed and once we finished eating, we slunk off to the electric trains but soon were both sound asleep on the floor, our bellies full of warm sand.

The Traveler and the Cook: Christmas Market In Vienna

Our cooking instructor, Eva Szigeti, writes about the nostalgia she feels around the holidays, particularly for the joys of the ‘holiday market’…

The holiday season is a time when we seem to be especially prone to nostalgia for childhood, for the magical time of hope and anticipation that brought light into the darkest part of the year. Nostalgia magnifies moments from childhood and leads to reminiscing about positive experiences. I miss the Christmas seasons of my childhood. No matter who hard I try to recreate the feeling of ‘Christmas’ every year, the holiday never seems to be the same as it was when I was a kid.Adults, do you remember snow globes? Those heavy glass (or plastic) spheres with a winter scene? When they are shaken, snow starts quietly coming down on the town or the landscape encased in the glass. Did you ever hold one as a child and feel mesmerized by the miniature world where snow was just one shake away? I always imagined myself being part of the scene. As the soft snow slowly came down inside of the glass-covered world, I was transported into the kingdom of imagination and dreams. How delightful! But seeing a snow globe as an adult, it seems more tacky than enchanting. I had to remember all the magic it brings, when my daughter asked for one few years ago.

As a child, I loved the Christmas market. I remember a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts warming my hands and the aroma of roasting chestnuts filling the town square. Enjoying the spirit of the holiday in a market is a nice way to spend a weekend day with children. For those who happened to be in Central Europe during the holiday season, Vienna is an excellent choice. Although I never went to a Christmas market in Vienna as a child, I had been to many others that provided a similar experience.

Vienna’s famous Christmas markets were likely the first place where snow globes were sold (and are still sold). Like many other inventions, the first snow globe was an unintended byproduct of a quest for something else – in this case, for a surgical lamp. The snow globe (Schneekugel) was patented at the end of the 19th century by Erwin Perzy, an Austrian surgical instruments mechanic. The hand-painted, manually assembled glass globes encasing a miniature St. Stephens Cathedral were a hit. The Perzy family continues to make a variety of snow globes to this day, and the family business still operates in the same house in Vienna.

Of course, there is no Christmas market without food and holiday treats. In a Christmas market in Vienna, this means stalls with grilled sausage, pretzels, sandwiches, roasted chestnuts and almonds, potato wedges, donut-like sweets (Krapfen), apples covered in red sugar glazing, cotton candy, and marzipan. Some stalls sell nothing but gingerbread decorated with colored frosting; hearts and stars with inscriptions of Christmas wishes.

For the sake of childhood nostalgia, I had to have a Schaumbecher which is an ice cream cone topped with marshmallow cream dipped in chocolate when I last visited a market. As children, we called them ‘winter ice cream’. It was nice to taste one again, although as a child, I had not been a big fan because they failed to deliver the taste of real ice cream.

Possibly more than by food, children at a market in Vienna will be enchanted by old-world wooden toys like pine cone animals, wooden birds, porcelain bells, and especially wooden figures that jump or fly (without batteries) when a string is pulled. And don’t expect to meet Santa in Vienna. In Austria and the Central European region, Christmas gifts are brought by the Christkind (Christ-child or Little Jesus).

In Central Europe, there is no Christmas without what the Austrians call vanilla kipferl (vanilla crescents). We decided to make a batch with my daughter recently. As we were baking, suddenly the wise-woman-persona of my nine-year-old daughter came to life and spoke, “You know, it is the small things that matter in life, like baking cookies or being with your family.” After my initial shock, I had to acknowledge that she was perfectly right. I hope she feels the wonder of the holiday, and one day she will yearn for the magic of her childhood Christmases.

Vanilla Kipferl or Vanilla Crescents Recipe

These are typical Austro-Hungarian Christmas cookies. In Austria, they are usually made with almonds, whereas in Hungary, ground walnuts are preferred.

Vanilla sugar is available at European grocery stores, or you can made your own by burying a vanilla bean in a jar of sugar. Let it sit for about two weeks until the vanilla releases its flavor into the sugar. Nicely packaged home-made vanilla sugar also makes a good gift!

2 cups flour
1 cup finely ground almonds or walnuts
2 sticks unsalted butter
¾ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla sugar (for the dough)
1 egg yolk
½ vanilla sugar (to coat the bake cookies)

Beat the butter until smooth. Gradually work in the confectioner’s sugar and vanilla sugar. Add the egg yolk. Stir in the flour and the ground almond or nuts. Make a stiff dough. Divide the dough into two parts and form two large rolls. Refrigerate the dough for about 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 35 degrees F. To form the crescents, cut about two teaspoons of dough. Gently roll the dough to form a rope with tapered end. Form the rope into a crescent. Put the cookie on a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat the process with the rest of the dough. This batch will make about 50 crescents. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until the cookies are light golden around the edges. Cool the cookies on the sheet for about two minutes. Roll each cookie in the vanilla sugar to coat. Enjoy!