Back to the Battle of Vienna

Very early on in the evolution of I noticed something odd about baking and pastry history. Specifically that much of it led back to the same event in European history: the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The development of this bread can be traced back to the Battle of Vienna in 1683. I seemed to find lines like that everywhere. This pastry originated at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Food historians trace the croissant, brioche, bagels, kipfel, rugelach (and undoubtedly many others) back to it. It’s the reason I came to call the Battle of Vienna the most baking-intensive conflict in the history of man.

So what exactly was the Battle of Vienna of 1683? Though most people today aren’t familiar with it, it was quite possibly the critical battle in early modern European history. It was the point at which the Ottoman Turks — who at the time seemed poised overrun northern Europe and in the process extinguish centuries of European tradition, Christian rule, the Westphalian nation state system and emerging concepts of individual rights and democracy — were routed by a combined army of Habsburgs and Poles. As I said we don’t think much about the battle now, but at the time it was considered, you know, important.

So where do the breads come into it? Folks who’ve followed the site for a while already know the story: It was a gloomy night in Vienna. For two long months the Ottoman Turks under Pasha Kara Mustafa had been laying siege to the city. Supplies were dwindling, morale was low, the aura of doom was palpable. Down to the last of their precious flour stores, a group of bakers worked doggedly onward in a shop that abutted the city wall. It was the wee small hours of the morning when suddenly: tap, tap, tap…tap, tap, tap. The bakers looked up at one another. What on Earth could that be? And then suddenly they realized: the Ottomans! They’re tunneling into the city! Quick! Raise the alarm! No — wait! Let’s bake something! Some sort of edible harbinger of impending doom!

Well OK, so they don’t always bake first (except in the croissant version). Some iterations have them running out and sounding the alarm. In others they pick up whatever implements are at hand and take on the Turks themselves, impaling the bad guys on balloon whisks and icing spatulas. Often the item being baked is in the shape of the Turkish crescent — a warning sign that the bad guys are coming — in others the baked thing is in the shape of a cavalryman’s stirrup or some piece of battle regalia. Regardless, the story always ends the same way: with the Turks vanquished, the populace grateful, and the bakers given monopoly rights to bake and sell the whatever-they-are’s by royal decree.

I have to admit it’s a fun story. Personally I like the image of swarthy, bare-chested Austrian bakers toiling away in their shop, just waiting for an excuse to go kick some Ottoman can. It offers me the happy illusion that instead of being fussy foodie primadonnas, we pastry types are actually widowmakers in waiting. That inside every Jacques Torres there’s a Chuck Norris waiting to get out. Yeah, well, a guy can dream can’t he?

Like just about every other piece of made-up food history, these tall tales have interchangeable parts. They can take place either in 1683 during the Battle of Vienna, or in 1529 during the Siege of Vienna. Both pitted Europeans against Turks, though in the Siege of 1529 there was a lot more tunneling (the battle is also called the “Siege of the Moles” for that reason). Alternately, it can happen during the Battle of Buda(pest) in 1686, though in that battle it was the Europeans who were besieging the Turks.

All of it’s pretty much hooey as far as I can tell.

2 thoughts on “Back to the Battle of Vienna”

  1. I don’t know much about Gil Marks, but given that he just passed away he’s been on my mind. So I figured I’d see what he has to say about rugelach. I found the rugelach page in his “The World of Jewish Cooking” and, what do you know, here’s how he starts (he’s about 100 years later than you):

    In 1793, Austrian bakers, in celebration of the lifting of a lengthy Turkish siege of Vienna, shaped various baked goods into crescents (kipferin), the emblem on the Ottoman flag. Rugelach (“little twists” in Yiddish) and yeast rugelach – also called Pressburger kipplach and Pozsonyi kifli – are all delicious examples of Austrian crescents.

    1. Hehe…of course! He must mean 1683. The only major battle in the 1793 that I can find was the First Battle of Wissembourg, and that was in France! My guess is he intended 1683 and there were a couple of errant keystrokes in there. And course that was the year of the “battle”, not the “siege” (not to be pedantic).

      There are a zillion little stories like this…all with interchangeable parts. Thanks, Chana!

      – Joe

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