"Performers are like chefs. Their role is to bake fantastic, exotic desserts to present to the public, but they must never, never save even the smallest piece for themselves." - Toller Cranston
Skating's connection to food likely dates back to the late neolithic period, when migrating lake-dwellers in Scandinavia would attach flat pieces of wood or bone to their feet to travel across snow and ice and hunt for food. In Holland in the eighteenth century, seeing women skating along frozen rivers and canals carrying baskets of eggs was a common occurrence. As skating developed as a sport and art and was regarded less as a means of transportation and survival as the centuries passed, its unique culinary history came to be largely overlooked. In today's blog, we'll look at the fascinating role that food has played in skating's history:
THE NINETEENTH CENTURY
Menu for 1879 Edinburgh Skating Club dinner at the Windsor Hotel. Photo courtesy The National Library Of Scotland.
In the early nineteenth century, skaters at one of London's Frost Fairs were treated to roast ox, mutton slices, mince pies, tea, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, Purl - a mix of gin and wormwood wine - and hot apples... all served up right on the ice. In Holland, skaters were lured into riverside stalls to bolster their spirits and stomachs during long journeys on frozen canals and rivers. In an 1885 account, C.G. Tebbutt described the fare served to Dutch skaters: "A big copper kettle, containing boiling milk or coffee, or milk alone, rests on the table... while the eatables are represented by heavy biscuits or gingerbread cakes. Some 'swell' booths provide Schiedam schnapps, warm wine, bread and cheese, and ham; some only the inevitable kettle which is filled with aniseed milk." At the Halifax Skating Rink in Nova Scotia, fancy skaters were treated to tea and light refreshments including strawberries and ice cream.
THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY
At The Bear in Grindelwald, Switzerland, refreshments were an important part of the popular
skating Gymkhanas of the period. Piping hot tea and large baskets of cakes were served after huge skating parties. Swiss skating fare was modest in comparison to luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City around the time a skating rink was open on the hotel's rooftop. A 1907 menu boasted Quail, English Snipe, Leg Of Mutton, Bretonne, Rhode Island Turkey, Smelts, St. Germain, Émincé, St. Hubert. Tansan, Japanese Mineral Water; Lemon Ice, Alligator Pears, Indian Pudding, Edam Cheese, claret and tea. A lobster cocktail was a mere sixty cents; a serving of cotuit oysters was thirty.
1902 ad for Van Camp's soup
Olympic and World Medallist Edgar Syers was one of the first to weigh in about what skaters should and shouldn't be eating: In his "Book Of Winter Sports", he wrote, "A considerable amount of food is probably necessary, as skating reduces weight rapidly, but speaking from experience we find that abstention from all flesh food, save fish, has a most beneficial effect in every way. Smoking and drinking in moderation are admissible; some red wine or light beer may be taken at meals, early hours and plenty of sleep are most important factors in training."
With the rise to power of Sonja Henie came the inevitable trend of reporters questioning of female skaters what they ate 'to keep their trim figures'. On June 20, 1939, "The Age" reported on two time World Champion Megan Taylor's diet thusly: "During her training period strengthening foods are carefully substituted for all starchy foods. She has been careful of her diet for so long that now Miss Taylor would prefer a cup of Bovril to the most tempting of cream cakes for afternoon tea."
Chef Phillip Velez of the London Chop House's veal stock so impressed Sonja Henie - reported "The Toledo Blade" on October 28, 1980 - that "he was asked to make three gallons of it for her to take on a European tour." Maribel Vinson-Owen wrote in "Advanced Figure Skating" that, "All year round Sonja had to watch her diet. In the competitive months she was careful to eat the foods that would give her the most energy, and in her three-month summer vacation she was careful not to put on the weight to which superb Norwegian cooking and inherited tendencies would make her prone. Wheat bread, steaks, lots of fruit, and practically no sweets made up her competitive menu, while during the actual skating, she drank quantities of tea and sugar for energy." While filming "Happy Landing" as a professional, reported the January 2, 1938 issue of "The Chicago Sunday Tribune", Sonja got by on "a breakfast of orange juice, cereal and fresh fruit. At luncheon, she had a bowl of beef bouillon in which two raw eggs had been beaten. For dinner, two lamb chops, three slices of pineapple, and a fresh, green vegetable... She drinks just milk and water. If she feels she needs extra nourishment while skating, she eats about two tablespoonsful of seedless raisins." Henie's mother Selma Lochmann-Nielsen was famous for making a very rich, heavy fish pudding that was often served at Sonja's lavish parties.
Evelyn Chandler peddled Sperry Drifted Snow Flour, Carol Lynne Dextrose Food-Energy Sugar, Sonja Henie Royal Crown Cola. Supper and skating went together like two birds of a feather in the second heyday of hotel ice shows. At the Terrace Room at the Hotel New Yorker in 1945, three course 'deluxe dinners' were offered in addition to an a la carte menu. The October 27, 1945 menu featured broiled fresh Lake Erie trout maitre d'hotel, Cali's Sweetbread with Ham and Mustard Eugene, a cold dinner of Prague Style Ham, Mustard Pickle and Sliced Tomato as well as oysters, clams, lobster salad, homemade burnt almond cream pie and fig puddings with brandy sauce. Coffee was twenty five cents a pot; a three course meal between $2.10 and $3.00.
In her 1952 book "Skate With Me", Olympic Gold Medallist Barbara Ann Scott wrote, "I've never smoked or taken a drink - though my father let me sip his cocktail once when I was curious - and I don't pay attention to diet because I don't even like pastry or cakes. I am very fond of spinach. When I was growing I ate oatmeal, with brown sugar and cream, and bacon and orange juice for breakfast. Now I take orange juice and nothing more. Lunch is soup and salad and perhaps fruit. Dinner is steak or chicken and green vegetables. It is a peculiar fact that skating has never made me hungry."
World War II rationing in England and food shortages in post-War Europe deprived many skaters of much needed protein. World Champion Jacqueline du Bief, in her book "Thin Ice" recalled that as a young skater during the War, "despite my parents' efforts, the food shortages... weakened me as was the case with all the children of my age." She clearly needed more du Bief in her diet!
Nineteen year old New South Wales Champion Valerie Cullen advocated a diet of raw eggs and raw steak. In contrast, World Champion Gundi Busch of Germany recommended a mainly vegetarian diet supplemented by fruit juice and milk. Captain T.D. Richardson, in his "Girls' Book Of Skating" believed that "as far as diet is concerned, there is little need for slimming; the hard physical exercise sees to that, and 'puppy fat' quickly disappears; but starchy foods are avoided and plenty of protein - fruit and vegetables are taken, no alcohol and no smoking, and bed on most nights at 8:30 or 9 o'clock. All these are the self-imposed rules of an aspiring champion."
Sonja Henie and her birthday cake in Vancouver, British Columbia
For touring skaters, it all came down to what was cheap and readily available. In 1955, the first McDonald's restaurant opened in Chicago, Illinois. By the end of the decade, over one hundred of the burger joints had opened across America. Though far from healthy fare, take-out joints offered a cheap alternative to hot plate cookery for skaters touring with professional ice revues like Ice Capades, Ice Follies and Holiday On Ice.
By the late sixties, every young skater in America wanted to be just like Peggy Fleming, so much so that they even believed mimicking her diet would be their meal ticket to a medal. In the May 16, 1968 edition of "The Evening Independent", Peggy's mother boasted of her daughter's prowess in the kitchen. She apparently made a mean banana bread and chocolate and cream cheese fudge but her speciality was meat loaf. Peggy explained, "You get some rice going. Meanwhile roll out some hamburger on a sheet of waxed paper. The trick is to roll it up after spreading the inside with rice and tomato sauce. It looks pretty messy while you work with it." Peggy believed in the importance of a well-balanced diet. She explained, "While I don't have a special diet, I do eat three meals a day and my meats are high in protein." For breakfast, it was bacon, eggs, toast and orange juice, a salad or sandwich for lunch and broiled meat, green vegetables and salad for dinner, fruit for dessert. She noted, "Most of the kids ate fruit of some kind. Some of the kids drank some of those food supplement things. But I'd rather eat a meal."
Menu from a 1971 reception held at Perino's restaurant in Los Angeles in memory of Sonja Henie by her widower Niels Onstad. Used with permission of the Wisconsin Historical Society (Image ID 10279).
As the world became entranced by the advent of frozen and convenience foods, skaters flocked to the steak and salad diet. They would eat nothing all day, drink a ton of water and have a steak and salad for dinner. A great many skaters fell prey to this seventies diet fad. It was simply what everyone was doing at the time.
When the Moscow Circus On Ice came to Chicago in 1970, the visiting Russian skaters were treated to a gala buffet dinner - and open bar - after their opening night performance. The November 21, 1970 issue of The Chicago Tribune reported, "When the hungry ice skaters, each carrying to a table a plate heaped so high with groceries that it made the famed Dagwood sandwich look like a starvation diet, had abandoned the bar, we interviewed a bartender about what nectar had appealed to the athletic young comrades. 'Never poured so much vodka in my life,' he said. 'Practically nothing else, except a little orange juice'."
By the late seventies, so much focus was placed on female skater's diet - and weight - that both of the gold medal favourites at the Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid placed a strong focus on slimming down in the belief that it would help their chances. In the May 20, 1979 issue of "The Chicago Tribune", Linda Fratianne lamented, "I've always been on a diet. I took off 10 pounds before the World Championships this year when my coach said to do that or forget about winning the title back. It was hard. I starved myself. I lived on strawberries. But it was something I had to do, or else." At the Olympics, Linda and her mother told reporters from "Sports Illustrated" that they would secretly order cheesecake from room service and put the empty trays in the hallway outside of someone else's door so that Frank Carroll wouldn't find out. "I've gained two [pounds]; Linda's down four... We sound like the daily Dow Jones report," laughed mother Virginia. "It's a battle, okay. I love desserts and I love spaghetti. Doesn't every Italian?", Linda quipped in the February 22, 1980 issue of "The St. Petersburg Times".
At a lavish banquet sponsored by Agriculture Canada at the 1984 World Championships in Ottawa, skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, Katarina Witt, Brian Orser and Scott Hamilton knoshed on chilled blueberry soup, fiddlehead pate, beef sirloin with pan-fried potatoes, maple parfait and domestic cheeses.
One year earlier, Campbell's Soup became the official sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Team. At that year's U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Pittsburgh, Judy and Jim Sladky dressed up as 'the Campbell kids' - complete with eight pound heads - to waltz around the rink extolling the virtues of Sodium-rich broth. That same year, both the U.S. and Canadian Figure Skating Associations began to bring in nutritionists to give seminars emphasizing the importance of nutrition to skaters.
Although the power of education certainly helped many, a great number of skaters still struggled with poor nutrition throughout the eighties. The pressure for young female skaters to fit a certain mould - and dress size - was immense and ridiculous. Elaine Zayak, Rosalynn Sumners... they were both victims of that pressure. Some even developed serious eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. In 1986, Canadian Olympian Charlene Wong spoke candidly of her struggles, pleading to skaters in one newspaper article, "If you're going through it, don't think you have to fight it alone. Get help."
By the late eighties, many skaters had recognized the power of a more structured, balanced diet. In the February 28, 1989 issue of "The Bulletin", Jill Trenary noted, "I eat lots of complex carbohydrates like fruits and vegetables and I often add chicken or fish at dinner. When I'm in a rush before practice, I grab a rice cake and a thermos of soup to snack on during a break. Soup is a staple in my diet. It's a great pick-up and helps give me extra strength. I also try to drink a lot of water during the day, and I stay away from caffeine. Instead of sodas, I'll have fruit juices like cranberry-apple."
Kicking off the nineties with a food analogy about figure skating... the late, great Toller Cranston had this to say about French and Russian ice dancers: "The Duchesnays are like the painting of Cezanne's oranges - a bowl of oranges, honest, truthful, meat and potatoes and real. Usova and Zhulin are like a Dutch still life by an unknown painter totally overdone and every cherry has a highlight. But when all is said and done, all you really wanted was an orange."
The nineties were perhaps one of the weirdest decades when it came to figure skating and food. Didier Gailhaguet admittedly fabricated a story about Surya Bonaly subsisting on a macrobiotic diet that pretty much amounted to birdseed. With an influx of corporate dollars, skaters competed in the saccharine sweet Hershey's Kisses Pro-Am Challenge and fizzy Diet Coke Skaters' Championships. Glossy magazine advertisements depicted skaters endorsing everything from frozen punch to fast food.
Professional skaters started to open up about subsisting on popcorn, raisins and muffins on the road... and the dark world of weigh-in's. The August 27, 1993 issue of "The Bangor Daily News" reported that on tour with the Ice Capades, "Food and weight control dominated talk among the skaters, both male and female, especially when it got close to the weekly weigh-in time. Each skater was assigned a designated weight - called a 'set'. Skaters who didn't make weight were docked money out of their paychecks and sometimes threatened with being sent home. Some skaters wouldn't eat for three days before the weigh-in. Others would pile on clothing to tip the scales. Many took laxatives to lose weight. Many thought the more alcohol they drank, the less weight they'd gain."
By the late nineties, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. With more and more education becoming readily available, a great majority of elite level skaters were recognizing the necessity of healthy, balanced diets that featured both protein and carbohydrates. Michelle Kwan's typical diet consisted largely of fish, chicken, pasta and vegetables.
BEYOND THE HISTORY
Between Brian Boitano's delightful cookbook and Food Network show and the boom in popularity of "Figure Skater Fitness" Magazine and Meagan Duhamel's wonderful "Lutz Of Greens" blog, more people are talking about figure skating and food than ever before this decade. After Meagan and Eric's performance at the 2016 World Figure Skating Championships in Boston, I think a lot of people are looking to Meagan and seeing what the power of clean eating can do for a skater. The future of figure skating's culinary history will most likely end up looking very different than its past!
Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.