Jeremy Nolen is tired of having to convince people that Germans eat salad.
The chef of Philadelphia’s Brauhaus Schmitz, Nolen’s long-standing goal has been reshaping American beliefs about German cuisine. You’re already intimately familiar with the stereotypes — child-height piles of pork and strands of sausages the length of firehoses, washed down by foamed-over steins of beer served by tow-headed girls in frilly dirndls. Maybe a little sauerkraut on the side, but no green to be seen for miles. Just gout, baby.
Of course, just like some foreigners believe Americans subsist solely on a diet of cartoon hamburgers, the typical Yankee perception of Germanic grub tends to be shortsighted and inaccurate. How it became this way is a slightly convoluted issue, but the good news is chefs like Nolen are hellbent on righting the schnitzel ship, once and for all.
“It’s an underrated and overlooked cuisine, and much of that has to do with this huge myth of German food being overcooked and bland,” says Nolen, also a chef-partner in Philly’s Wursthaus Schmitz and the upcoming Whetstone. “Obviously, it’s not like that in Germany, but it often is here. That’s why we need to change peoples’ minds.”
The first step in sparking such change is dissecting the origins of the “German food = meat meat meat” credo, so deeply entrenched that Nolen regularly hears about guests questioning the authenticity of salads and veggie sides on his menu. The reality is that most of the dishes and traditions that immediately come up when Germany’s the topic of conversation originate in the southern region of Bavaria. Iconic eats like pretzels, weisswurst and sauerbraten, plus socio-cultural touchstones like the beer garden and the oom-pah band, were introduced to American audiences by early native restaurateurs who specialized in the cooking of Germany’s largest state. (Some of these restaurants, like Boston’s Jacob Wirth, are still in business today.)
Over time, Bavarian food came to define German food in America, even though it was merely a portion of the picture. You’d never try to argue that Texas barbecue or Maine lobster alone does well defining American cuisine, and this same thought process applies to understanding true German food. “A lot of people don’t realize how big Germany is, and how separated it is by regions,” says Nolen. And just like any other European nation, it’s heavily influenced by its neighbors.
In the north, along the Danish border, the diet is big on seafood from the North Atlantic and Baltic. There are Alsatian touches aplenty in the Black Forest to the west, while the west-central region of Westphalia is famous for its acorn-fed hogs, similar in reputation to Spain’s jamon Iberico. In the east, close to Poland and the Czech Republic, hearty Slavic influences are a fixture. Germany also possesses a storied agricultural backbone, including a strong citizen gardening tradition dictated by the communal cultivation of (yup) seasonal vegetables.
And this is just traditional stuff we’re talking about. The modern German dining identity is a force, topped only by France, Japan and Italy in overall stars in the 2014 Michelin Guide. Big cities like Frankfurt and Munich have thriving culinary scenes, including ample vegetarian options. Nolen and his pastry chef wife Jessica, for their part, hope to split the difference between rustic and contemporary with New German Cooking, a modern German cookbook that will be out via Chronicle this fall. (I helped the Nolens write it.) There is an extensive and exciting salad chapter.
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