The tradition of organising New Year’s Eve parties in Poland goes back to the mid-19th century. Before that, New Year celebrations could hardly be described as boisterous. The night didn't differ much from others, apart from the custom of trying to predict what lay ahead in terms of marriages, harvests and the weather.
When the turn of the year first began being celebrated, it was done in private, behind the closed doors of manor houses, during parties featuring punch and hunting. Bigger parties were thrown during the so-called carnival season at rich aristocratic homes. Food served at parties on New Year’s Eve or during carnival at the beginning of the 20th century included typical Polish cuisine as well as sophisticated French dishes.
Mandatory menu items included pheasant, salmon in mayonnaise, roast beef, pork tongues and hams in aspic, as well as hare pâté. There was also French foie gras (known in Poland as Strasbourg pâté), roasted turkey, game and wild fowl, galantine, sophisticated sauces, salads, kompot, cake (including tiered cake), lemonade and alcoholic beverages. The queen of 19th-century Polish cuisine and author of best-selling cook books Lucyna Ćwierciakiewiczowa added her famous turtle soup to this list too.
The Marshal despises fancy food
In the 1920s and 1930s, the trend to celebrate New Year’s Eve was at its peak. Various social classes celebrated the night as well as they could afford it. The food always had to be sophisticated yet filling, so that people could dance the night away.
This is why – as suggested by pre-war women’s magazine Bluszcz (Ivy) – apart from fried carp or pike in horseradish sauce, the menu could include venison with Italian pasta and red currant jelly, warm ham with potato puree and chicory salad, or specially-prepared whole pheasant decorated with feathers. Cheese and sweets were indispensable elements of the menu, including layer cakes, dried tropical fruit, punch, angel wings and doughnuts. Around dawn, greasy and filling traditional dishes were served, namely aromatic bigos involving a variety of meats, tripe with marjoram served Kraków or Warsaw style, or veal stew. Nowadays all these dawn dishes are still popular items on New Year’s Eve party menus.
The night’s party menu was incomplete without snacks and appetisers washed down with vodka: herrings in mayonnaise, sardines, rollmops, winter sprats, anchovies, smoked mackerel or vendace, pickled red pine mushrooms, and, when being more sophisticated, crayfish and lobster salads, caviar, smoked goose breast or suckling pig roulade – often served a la mode on one-bite tartines.
Unlike Marshal Józef Piłsudski, who was well-known for his restrained lifestyle and simple tastes, President Ignacy Mościcki liked big parties. He organised – not only during carnival – ‘boisterous, entertaining and sumptuous’ dance parties for members of the government, generals and diplomats. Sometimes they were preceded by hunting sessions. After the hunting was over, guests were served bigos and starka (aged vodka), but fancier dishes were served later during the party. New Year’s lunches would be organised at the Royal Castle in Warsaw. Their 1934 menu was so elaborate and cosmopolitan that it was commented on by journalists who advised in their newspapers that:
‘big lunch party menus in famous Polish houses should feature national cuisine, and be based on excellent domestic products, which would contribute to international promotion thereof... e.g. vendace from Mazurian lakes, plaice and eel, special pieces of game.’
Luxury for the Central Committee
At the beginning of the 1950s, during the Stalinist regime, there was often no food whatsoever, and hunger episodes were not infrequent according to novelist and scriptwriter Zbigniew Kubikowski, whose words are cited by Maja and Jan Łoziński in Historia Polskiego Smaku (The History of Polish Taste). However, despite austerity, New Year’s celebrations were pursued anyway. The biggest parties were organised at the Communist Party’s headquarters and in municipal cultural centres.
But as time went by, a trend was born for each factory and other employing establishments to organise a party for its workers (led by an emcee whose presence was obligatory on such occasions). The guests were served cold cuts, pork in aspic, clear beetroot soup and bigos. Alcohol was also served in big quantities, although in only one variety: vodka.
The ruling class did not necessarily eat the same things as the proletariat. On the contrary, ‘their intention was not to share post-war austerity with the hoi polloi’ as we can read in The History of the Polish Taste. There is a well-known saying from that time that workers eat caviar with the mouth of their eminent representatives. Fancy parties for top communist officials were thrown immediately after WWII, and not only during carnival season.
In 1949, Maria Dąbrowska wrote in her memoirs that the establishment’s tables sagged under the weight of greasy food:
‘..mayonnaise, salads, ham, pork and beef sirloin, surrounded by all the communist literary elite gulping and gobbling. The shock was even bigger since we – the writers – had not eaten meat for a long time. I ate perhaps one fifth of what I was served, and still it was more than I had ever eaten for a whole day.’
The then-president Bolesław Bierut was notorious for his gluttonous appetite. His office was always full of citrus fruits which were totally unavailable for the masses, as well as sweets, fruit juice, caviar, salmon, lobster and the most fancy snacks. A penchant for luxury and beautiful women was a distinguishing feature of Józef Cyrankiewicz too, a long-term prime minister during the communist regime, whose attitude was totally contrary to that of Władysław Gomułka (First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party PZPR from 1956), who is said to have fought against such extravagances.
Today, when food is so easy to access, with shops full of goods and people’s culinary awareness always growing, New Year’s Eve party menus can be very diverse (although Polish tables do not sag under the big game or wild fowl dishes of the past, which are today a rather rare delicacy). Typical menus in Poland will include bigos as well as food from all around the world in one-bite snacks, even sushi. But certainly today’s New Year’s Eve is not celebrated as boisterously and decadently as in the past. After saying farewell to the old year, more and more Poles now start the new one with an ascetic detox.
Originally written in Polish, Dec 2015, translated by IS, Dec 2016