Jules Verne and Aerial Dining: When Fiction Lagged Reality

Jules Verne was a visionary, though he was modest about his writing and insisted that he never invented anything. To a degree he was right – humans descended beneath the sea in submarines before he wrote about them, but those craft were fragile and unreliable, nothing like the mighty Nautilus of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Verne’s early works often featured balloon voyages, and were published in a magazine that specialized in stories combining factual science and fiction. This is one reason they read oddly to modern people – they were designed as a combination of education and entertainment with the expectation that readers would know when one stopped and the other started.

Cover of the first edition.

Cover of the first edition.

Verne’s first novel, known to Anglophones as Five Weeks in a Balloon, was published in 1863, and was about an aerial exploration of Africa by three Englishmen. The description of their pre-departure preparations gives a distinctly spartan provisions list:

“He at the same time carefully weighed his stores of provision, which consisted of tea, coffee, biscuit, salted meat, and pemmican, a preparation which comprises many nutritive elements in a small space. Besides a sufficient stock of pure brandy, he arranged two water-tanks, each of which contained twenty-two gallons.”

Verne included a chart listing the weight of their supplies; the “Meat, pemmican, biscuits, tea, coffee, and brandy” weighed 386 pounds, the water 400 pounds. They also brought guns and powder to shoot animals along the way, and various adventures ensue whenever they do. The animals are butchered on the ground and steaks roasted over a fire and brought back to the balloon, and the only aerial cooking seems to be the making of coffee. I don’t remember any incident at which the three Englishmen preferred tea to coffee, which in that era may have qualified the book as science fiction. Perhaps the tea may have been intended as ballast, or saved to entertain any company with more conventional tastes.

Don't you hate it when this happens?

Don’t you hate it when this happens?

The pace of Verne’s novel is greatly slowed by his habit of cramming historical and technical information into the narrative, and casual readers will find themselves skimming past columns of numbers and recitations of the adventures of previous African explorers. It’s not riveting reading in the English translation, though everyone I know who has read Verne in the original French says the prose is much more elegant. Impractical as his vision was, and as imperfectly translated into other languages, he certainly inspired more practical people who made his dreams of flight a reality.

Rum Drinks: Tips On Flips

In my book on the history of rum I included a recipe for making Landlord May’s Flip, a Colonial American drink of dark beer with cream, sugar, and egg stirred with a hot poker while rum is added. When done correctly this makes a rich, creamy hot drink that is similar to an alcoholic marshmallow. Here’s a picture of me doing this at home:

Stirring a jug of Landlord May's Flip with a hot poker. Photo by William Foss.

Stirring a jug of Landlord May’s Flip with a hot poker. Photo by William Foss.

Some people who tried doing this after reading my recipe were successful, some weren’t, and at first I couldn’t figure out why. Then I did a demonstration at an excellent restaurant in Los Angeles called Redbird, which has a beautiful fireplace at one side of the dining room. When I arrived the poker was already in the fireplace, and I didn’t pay attention to it while making sure the other ingredients were ready. When everything was in order I pulled the poker from the fire and started to stir, and immediately recognized that there was a problem. There was a brief spurt of steam but not the sustained bubbling I achieved at home, and it was very difficult to move the poker inside the jug. A look at the poker revealed the problem – it was a very spindly thing made of thin welded rods, and the hooks for moving the logs extended four inches from the shaft. The traditional fire poker I had used had a heavy bulb of metal at the end, and the log hook extended only about an inch. As a result the traditional poker held heat for a long time, and it was easy to move around inside the jug. We couldn’t go out to search for another fire poker at Redbird, so had to make do with putting the cream and alcohol mixture in a saucepan and stirring it vigorously over the flame.

Since then I have looked around and found that almost all modern fire pokers are the simple welded rod type, and it’s very hard to find the traditional style. Ironically, I got rid of my traditional set before I found this out, and I am now scavenging thrift stores for a traditional set. If I’m really lucky I may find a tool designed for the job. Serious flip makers in the Eighteenth Century used a rod with a bulb on the end that had no log hook at all; it was called a loggerhead. Here’s a picture of one: 5FlipTools

I have no great hope of finding one of these in my home in Southern California, but if any of my faithful readers finds one, it would be a great birthday present… hint, hint…

Another tip: Take the beer and cream out of the refrigerator at least half an hour before making the flip, because it doesn’t need to be cold. Beer in Colonial America was drunk at room temperature, and if it’s cold when you start making this, it will speed the rate at which the poker cools down.

I hope that helps… If you have other problems, please feel free to contact me with specifics and I’ll try to help.



The Majesty of Flying Boat Service Recaptured

I don’t usually post pictures of my talks, but a particular image is so beautiful that I had to include it. It’s not that it’s a particularly great likeness of me, but it doesn’t need to be – the important part is what I’m standing in front of – a Short Solent flying boat that first took to the skies in about 1948.

The majestic Shorts Solent, lit up like a disco and ready to party.

The majestic Short Solent, lit up like a disco and ready to party.

This shot was taken at the Museum of Transport and Technology in Auckland, and the occasion was a gala dinner to benefit the restoration of that aircraft. For the meal we used recipes published by the airlines over the years – and despite the reputation of airline food they were delicious.


Most of these recipes were from an era after the heyday of the Solent, though this one, christened the Aranui, continued serving Pacific islands until 1960. We were delighted and surprised when it turned out that a lady in the audience had been on two of those flights as a girl, and she brought her certificate that had been signed by the pilot in 1959. The dinner brought happy memories for her and a sense of wonder to all in attendance.