In the 1980’s we spent a year (from 1985-1986) living abroad in a most unusual place, “behind the Iron Curtain” in the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Most Americans referred to the country at that time as “East Germany,” but the Germans living there preferred their country be called the “German Democratic Republic.” In 1985 when we traveled there with our two-year old daughter, it was still the era of the Cold War, and Germany was still divided into two very different countries. As the result of a series of career decisions and (frankly) happenstance, Greg had the opportunity to teach as an exchange professor for Karl Marx Universität in Leipzig—a famous historic university once known, and now known again, as the University of Leipzig.
Our year abroad “behind the Curtain” will certainly be the subject of further posts, because it was at once a most difficult, but also quite a significant year for us. It turned out to be (although we didn’t know it at the time) a turning point in Greg’s professional life. But more on that later. Even under difficult circumstances, we made friends in that small socialist country, some of them would become not only long-term colleagues, but life-long friends. We learned a great deal during our time there. We learned some important things about ourselves, about the inestimable value of freedom and privacy, and about the pervasive, invasive nature of totalitarian states.
However, today’s blog post isn’t about these big, important issues. It’s about misconceptions—little things, little mistakes of thinking we make. We all have misconceptions about those who live in other countries and practice other ways of life. We Americans have them about foreigners, and those in foreign countries have them about us. But when you actually live in a foreign country for as long as we did, your pre-conceived notions about that culture, it customs, even its cooking, are challenged and, if you listen and learn, your notions change. Generalizations, misconceptions, and stereotypes dissolve and disappear once you actually meet and get to know those “foreign” people and places.
Misconceptions abound about many things but, and now we get to the meat of this post, they especially surround the topic of food. Hence our blog title, “Culinary Misconceptions.” Before living in the GDR, when Joan thought of German food, she, like many other Americans, mainly thought of beer, bratwurst, and sauerkraut. These were to her, of course, the main staples of German diet. Most of her knowledge of German food dated back to the 1970’s when we would frequent some old German restaurant haunts when we lived in the Columbus, Ohio area: the Leipzig Haus on East Livingston Avenue in Bexley, Ohio and Schmidt’s Sausage Haus in German Village. Greg, who had German relatives and had spent several of his childhood years living in Germany as an Army brat, didn’t grow up with these same stereotypes.
While it is certainly true that Germans drink a lot of beer and are justifiably proud of their immense array of brews, it isn’t the only thing they drink. Indeed in the GDR we were usually offered wine or bottled water first when enjoying a dinner at someone’s home. As to Bratwurst, well little did Joan know—but soon found out after her first visit to a Metzgerei (butcher shop)—that the humble Bratwurst is only one of a myriad of Wursts (sausages) found in Germany. There was Blutwurst, Bockwurst, Weisswurst, Knackwurst, and Leberwurst, just to name some small few of the ones we ate and enjoyed (with a staggering variety of mustards!). Most regions had their own special varieties of Wurst. In Lower Saxony there was Bregenwurst and Thüringia had its own unique large Rostbratwurst with distinctive spices like marjoram and garlic. When we visited Nürnberg we enjoyed the smaller finger-sized Nürnberger sausages that have become world-renowned.
When eating out or eating at someone’s home, we also sampled many delicious non-sausage dishes: Sauerbraten, Rouladen, Kasseler Schinken, and Schnitzel. One of Joan’s favorite dishes was Jaeger Eintopf, a kind of stew made from beef, onions, potatoes, and mushrooms. If memory serves us right, sauerkraut was never served once when we dined at someone’s home.
Before we lived in Germany, Joan’s idea of a German dessert was strudel and German chocolate cake (also something we recall being served at Schmidt’s restaurant in German Village). German chocolate cake? It was nonexistent throughout Germany. Turns out it didn’t originate anywhere in Deutschland. The recipe for German chocolate cake (a favorite of Joan’s brother, by the way prepared for him by his wife every year on his birthday) actually is derived from Samuel German, who in 1852 developed a bar of sweet baking chocolate while working for the Baker’s Chocolate Company. In 1957 a recipe using a “German’s chocolate bar” appeared in a Dallas, Texas newspaper, and the rest is history. Many Germans, in fact, would probably dislike German chocolate cake. Several have told us that they dislike most American cakes because they are too sweet for their tastes.
German desserts also turned out to be so much more than strudel: Lebkuchen, Stollen, Obstkuchen (an only slightly sweet thin cake topped with fruit). Indeed any early morning visit to a Bäckerei (bakery) would reveal a wide array of torts, pastries and other sweets. One of Joan’s favorites was a dessert made by her friend Doris called “Quarktorte ohne Boden.” It resembled cheesecake but was baked with “quark,” a kind of curd cheese. “Ohne Boden” which literally translates as “without a floor” meant that the dessert was prepared with no bottom or crust.
Before leaving Germany Joan made sure to ask Doris for the recipe, but mistakenly asked for “Quarktorte ohne Bohnen” (which translates as Quarktorte without beans)! When our German friends started laughing, Joan, quick to catch her mistake, insisted that the recipe was “auch ohne Bohnen” (also without beans)!
So, indeed German cuisine was, and is, about much more than beer, brats, sausages, and strudel. But Americans aren’t the only ones to have misconceptions about another culture’s food. Before and after the Wall fell, through our experiences living in the GDR and meeting people, as well as traveling in and visiting Greg’s relatives in what was then called West Germany, we learned, too, that Germans had many misconceptions about our American food as well.
Some Germans think our beer or wine to be of inferior quality. When we visited a local winery in the Rheinland of (then) West Germany, the owner told us they shipped their “inferior” wines to the United States for consumption. The implication perhaps was that Americans (as every German knows) wouldn’t know the difference between a good wine and a bottle of vinegar. While we certainly enjoyed very good beers and wines in Germany before and after the Wall came down, you can, indeed, get very good beer and wine in the States. A burgeoning American viniculture and the growth of American craft breweries have transformed our alcoholic beverage landscape. And we can testify that while we lived in the GDR, we did purchase some VERY low quality wines in the supermarkets! Although, truth be told, there were days where we were glad to be consuming even those inferior vintages!
Some Germans also have a low opinion of American food. We encountered this when one of our GDR friends came to visit us in Ohio. Although during those Cold War years, East Germans were not allowed to travel “to the West,” exceptions were made. If you were a pensioner, you could freely travel outside the country. If you were a member of the Communist Party and had professional reasons, you could also receive permission to travel. One of our friends, who was allowed come to Ohio for academic purposes, visited us after we returned from the GDR when we lived in the small Ohio town of Burton in Geauga County.
For the first dinner our German friend had with us, Joan had prepared stuffed manicotti shells, a salad, and had baked homemade bread. We had never encountered Germans who baked their own bread the year we lived in the GDR so it could be understandable that seeing an American do this was a bit surprising for her. She had expected, instead, the typical soft, spongy American white bread (think Wonder bread) that was a staple in the homes of those of us who were children in the 1950’s and 1960’s—indeed it is still a household fixture in many homes although, hallelujah, Americans finally seem to have discovered good bread along with good beer. This kind of bread is still sold in American supermarkets, of course, but is no longer the only or most popular choice available to consumers. We both personally have not eaten that kind of bread for many years! Germans have wonderful bakeries, even in the smallest villages, with a variety of marvelous breads that we still remember fondly. Our theory is that the Germans we knew didn’t need to bake their own loaves to get delicious tasting bread.
When our GDR visitor tasted the manicotti shells, she asked if they had come from a box that we had purchased. She had heard that Americans prepared their foods from boxes of pre-made foods; Betty Crocker Hamburger Helper is an example of exactly what she was thinking. While, true, the shells had not been home-made, Joan had hand-stuffed the shells and prepared the sauce and stuffing for the manicotti. We have since read that it is a common misconception for Europeans to think Americans not only eat mostly fast food but also prepare their dinners at home from boxed pre-prepared meals.
Sometimes, misconceptions are based on customs that have been slightly “warped in the translation.” One of our GDR friends, for example, thought Americans ate their cheese with ketchup. We had been invited one night to some dear friends’ apartment in the GDR for dinner (where are you now Knut and Angela?). As appetizers we were served toothpick-speared chunks of cheese topped with ketchup. While sampling the cheese, Joan mentioned that this was a German custom she had never heard of. Our friend, surprised, laughed and replied that it was not a German custom but had thought it an American custom. His father had told him that Americans ate their cheese topped with ketchup. After some discussion we decided that his father had probably heard that Americans liked to eat French fries with ketchup—this, obviously not a misconception but a pure and unvarnished truth. We eat lots of things, maybe too many things, with ketchup.
The thing about all misconceptions is that there is a kernel of truth behind them. You can find bratwurst, beer, sauerkraut, and (very good) strudel in Germany. There are poor quality American beers and wines. There are Americans who frequent fast food restaurants and routinely prepare Hamburger Helper type meals. Americans have been known to put ketchup on all kinds of things: steak, macaroni and cheese, eggs (just do a Google Image search if you have the stomach for the results). But it is always a mistake to generalize about another culture’s food or eating habits. Cultural culinary traditions are rich and diverse; immersion in a culture is without a doubt the best way to learn about them.
There are, of course, other misconceptions we encountered that Germans had about Americans. But these will be food for another day’s blog!