Shit. Fuck. I completely forgot that holidays don’t MAGICALLY make weeks longer. I was like “dum de dum, let’s just enjoy 4th of July, fireworks, cook some ribs, la-di-da, and then tomorrow I’ll work on the post” only to roll up to my bedroom at 11 at night and realize, no, wait, this shit is DUE in 14 hours! So let’s do this. I’m in the perfect state of mind to summarize the culinary traditions of a country I JUST ESTABLISHED has been recording and forming history for over 1,000 years as a zone of relative cultural unity, divided into at least 39 component states with differing traditions before their unification 147 years ago! THIS IS FINE.
EVERYTHING IS FINE.
So let’s talk Kaiser Roles and Pop Tsars (jesus, the puns are getting WORSE.) This is Looking in Abroad’s Pantries.
Ze Cold, Hard Truth
Alright, with Japan and The Levant, I took a fairly focused approach, enumerating specific ingredients that my research into the culture told me were useful case studies for the broader cuisine. That’s a little trickier for Germany, because of the way American immigration works. Which, simply if somewhat crassly put, can be summarized as “white guys are fine, everyone else needs to be checked.” And that’s not a dig at specifically the current administration; it’s just the historical fact. Despite Benjamin Franklin being irritated at the number of Germans moving into Pennsylvania in 1750, overall, America’s been pretty fine with Europeans showing up for most of its history.
"Exclusive of the new-comers" may be the most polite acknowledgment I've ever seen of Colonial Americans taking their land from the Native Americans.
As such, a lot of German ingredients and elements aren’t as interesting or surprising to an American audience. They’ve already been acclimatized to them. As a brief example, while Sushi had a brief hey-day in America around 1905, it then went back underground for mainstream America until around the 1970’s. By contrast, the bratwurst started picking up steam in the 1920’s, and started being sold at baseball stadiums in the 1950’s. Thus, listing off specific ingredients isn’t very useful for American audiences, as they already KNOW most of them. As such, I have to talk about the cultural weight of these ingredients, and German usage of them. And to do THAT, I have to talk about the cultural understanding of GERMANY. So let’s dive in.
The general perception of American audiences of German cuisine is basically “beer, sausages, stews and cheese”. And while there is some truth to those beliefs, it’s important to discuss how and why we came to have them. Basically, what you have to remember is that the general American opinion of European countries, for rather odd reasons, tends to relate everything in relation to a rather specific location. Think about it. England, we’re told, is somewhat drab, kind of wet. Spain is sunny and hot, Germany is mountainous and cold, and nothing east of Italy is in any way important. This a rather particular outlook, specifically, it’s the outlook of a Frenchman. Even MORE specifically, one from middle or southern France. Like, we’re talking “Orleans” or “Clemont-Ferrand”.
While Germany is somewhat cold, it’s not by an amazing amount: New York gets JUST as cold as Munich does in winter. Paris is only around 7-8 degrees warmer, and gets just as much precipitation. But for some reason, America’s climate assessment of Europe is based on the values of a mid-nation French peasant. If I had to guess…this might actually be because of those two wars. Yeah, that makes sense. US troops arrived in World War 1 in France in the spring, and pushed into Germany over the summer. Then, in World War 2, we arrived in Italy in the summer, then in France in June, we got stymied by supply line issues, but the Battle of the Bulge was in December. Huh. Looks like we just believed that every country was permanently the season it was while we were hanging out.
How many other food blogs do you know are willing to implicitly accuse American soldiers in World War 2 of being big ol' Dummies, eh? Probably not many.
But, yes, Germany is colder in winter than say, Paris, and it is more mountainous, being at the foothills of the Alps, though Austria is much more involved in those regions. Though, for a while, Austria WAS Germany…but let’s not get into history of European nation-states. Most Americans keep forgetting that the Czech Republic broke up with Slovakia, and had its new name for a little while before deciding it was too formal and started going by Czechia. Making Czechia, the “Katie” of Europe.
Anyway, let’s get to 2 fundamental facts about German cuisine, now that the cultural assumptions are at least slightly alleviated.
The Rind, and the Heel
The biggest thing to know about German food is that they eat a heap of pork. While the Average American consumes about 65 pounds of pork a year, the average German eats 77. And to better explain the importance of those numbers: the average American eats roughly 270 pounds of meat a year, meaning pork is about ¼ of our meat consumption. Germans only eat 130 pounds. So they’re eating more pork than us, in a diet with HALF THE MEAT. Over 50% of the meat they eat comes from pigs!
Partly this is because, as we noted on Monday, Germans love their sausage. Sausage making standards were written down in the 1300’s in Germany, so they’ve been into it for at least half a millennium. In addition to sausage, Germany has a long standing affection for pig’s feet. The slow-roasted pork knuckle, or schweinshaxe is a German classic, not unlike an American pot roast.
It's got a similar look, too, when you get down to it.
On top of that, we have pork chops, pork schnitzel, and plenty of other pig-based opportunities for German appetites.
And if there’s no pork to be had, then at least the average German meal has some bread to reach for. Yes, while mentally we may associate the French with their love of baguettes more strongly, it should be noted that Germany is no slouch when it comes to craving carbs. One of the German words for dinner is abendbrot or “evening bread” (the other is abendessen, or “evening eat”. Lunch is mittagessen or “middle-day-eat”. Look, German is pretty straightforward at the core. It’s like Lego bricks as a language. Just mash ideas together until something works.)
Germany actually has the highest rate of bread diversity in the world, according to the apparently real “Milling and Baking News”. (And people say niche media is worthless.) Anyway, there are over 200 recognized varieties of bread in Germany, and over 1000 forms of pastries and rolls. The rolls are quite common as breakfast or dinner snacks, serving as the base for sandwiches filled with meats and toppings.
Or "overfilled with meat and completely barren of toppings" depending on the sandwich.
By the way, the meat there is "leberkase" or "liver-cheese", and is basically Bologna. This is the German equivalent of a bologna sandwich on white bread.
And if we broaden our definition of ‘bread’, we can also see that Germans love their cake. Cakes, doughnuts, tarts, tortes, and pfannkuchen, or “pan-cakes” (referring to a type of crepe, not an American pancake) are all common dessert options in Germany.
You Can Never Have Enough Precision in Your Soup
Have I been able to make a Venture Bros reference before? I assume so, but I genuinely can’t recall. The point here is a broader one, and it has to do with some cultural foundations. Specifically, ordnung. It directly translates to “order”, but it’s a much broader concept, in the way that if an American says “law and order”, they’re referring to more than simply the correct disposition of police forces.
Like prime-time police procedurals!
If you think this joke isn't trying hard enough, believe me, it's because the academic depths we're about to dive into were emotionally draining at 1 AM.
Germany has in essence noticed that, historically, if things get too chaotic in Germany, it goes badly. And not JUST for Germany. World Wars tend to break out. This is a gross oversimplification of course, but I wanted a little dark humor to season this potentially somewhat dry section. Basically, German culture equates ordnung, the proper order of things, the following of rules and regulations, with sicherheit, a word meaning “safety” AND “certainty”. At its rawest, sicherheit is translated into the semantic prime “I know that nothing bad can happen to me” And if you don’t know what a semantic prime is, NEITHER DID I until I tried to explain all this. (Semantic Primes are concepts that cannot be further broken down, typically defined at least in part by contrast to another semantic prime. “Think” vs “Know” for instance. Or how to describe "inside" and "outside".)
I bring all this up because the German table is regularly influenced by the need for ordnung. Many beer glasses in Germany have a mark partway up the glass, showing where the liquid should reach when full. Bars are semi-regularly inspected to ensure they are giving customers the amount of beer they have paid for. My brother and I regularly reference a particularly amusing version of the orderly nature of German thinking: in an episode of “Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations” in Berlin, a sausage vendor, when discussing the sausages and toppings in his cart, noted that his ketchup is “87.5% tomato paste”. That sentiment is somewhat jarring to the average American mind. Why does he know the specific percentage? And why did he USE it? Why not say “over 80%” or even just round to the nearest percentage? That specific detail sticks in the mind as a great example of German precision in food, in service of ordnung.
This chaotic mess is basically a culinary hate crime in Germany.
And, while I’ve spent a ton of time laying out broad examples, this is still Looking in Abroad’s Pantries. It would be disingenuous of me to not give you a couple of examples of ‘uniquely’ German ingredients and dishes, and what we can learn/see in them.
Senf is simply the German word for Mustard. But the weight of its importance shouldn’t be eclipsed by its simplicity. Mustard is a CLASSIC accompaniment to Pork, and with so many varieties of pork in Germany, there are of course a commensurate number of mustards. Coarse to smooth, sweet to fiery, there’s at least a dozen different kinds of mustard one can find, each tailored for a different dish or experience.
Many people believe that Germans don’t like jokes. That belief is because Germans tend to follow a somewhat sharp work-life divide: jokes and fun are for your friends and family, not for the workplace. Germans don’t tell jokes at meetings, and they can get a little offput by people who do. However, the German people do have jokes. And this dish is one of them.
Maultaschen, as you can see, are very similar to ravioli, little pasta sheets wrapped around a filling of meat and cheese. The major difference is that these are normally around 3-5 inches across. They come from Swabia, a region in southwest Germany, and the generally agreed upon story of why they exist is the joke: As most good Catholics know, you’re supposed to avoid eating meat during Lent. Well, the maultaschen are traditionally served on Good Friday, and Maundy Tuesday, both days that occur, naturally, DURING LENT. But it’s fine. Because, as you you see, the meat is covered in Pasta. Therefore, God can’t see it. Boom. Problem solved. God, like toddlers, lacks object permanence.
I never claimed German humor was GOOD, merely that it EXISTED. (Note: Germany actually does have plenty of fine jokes, such as this one: Three children are arguing over whose father is the fastest. "My father drives race-cars, so he's the fastest!" says the first. "Nuh-uh, says the second, "because my dad drives planes, and they go faster than race cars!" The third child says "My dad works for the government. He's so fast, that even though work doesn't end until 5, he STILL gets home by 2!" )
Ireland may be the nation most associated with boiled cabbage, but Germany is definitely more cabbage crazy. And if you doubt it, remember that sauerkraut is just a way of preparing cabbage. The other reason is that Germany uses MORE cabbages. Sure, white cabbage makes fine sauerkraut, but you can stew red cabbage with apples and raisins for a warm and sweet side dish! Or Blue cabbage, in Bavaria, or Green Cabbage, which is basically just Kale. All are popular in different parts of Germany, for different meals.
This one is something of a no-brainer. Germany is one of the core reasons that so many Americans believe that a meal needs a starch to be complete. And if they can’t get their starches from breads, or their noodles and dumplings such as spaetzle, then they use potatoes. Or they use their potatoes to MAKE their dumplings, noodles, or breads.
And that’s about it. We talked a LOT about German culture and cuisine today, despite having very little time to do so. I even wandered into a legitimate scholarly article for a while! All at the last minute. Because it’s important to understand other cultures, to try their dishes. That’s a prime way to build community with them, and understand them as people. And that is the core of what makes America great, and something to celebrate, just as we celebrate the Fourth.
MONDAY: JON MAKES RIBS, SINCE SUMMER IS UPON US, AND HE DOES IT TWO WAYS: ONE A LITTLE ASIAN, ONE A LITTLE AMERICAN.
THURSDAY: JON TALKS ABOUT HIS FAMILY’S SMOKERS, HOW THEY WORK, AND WHAT THEY CAN DO