Last week, I did an online search for German restaurants in New York City, thinking that maybe I’d find something I’d missed before: a forward-thinking hub for new Teutonic cooking. My goal was to eat a German meal, since I’d gone out on a limb and chosen German cuisine as my topic for Around The World In 5 Editors. If there isn’t a buzzy German spot in New York City, the center of the culinary universe, can German cuisine ever really become trendy, I wondered.
My search turned up the old standbys, time capsules of deep-hued Bavarian interior anti-design, waitresses shuffling around in their dated-looking dirndls shlepping oversized Pilsners to thirsty tourists, occasionally complemented by too-large plates with a sad-looking sausage in the center. Why has it come to this? Why can’t German cuisine, the cuisine of ancestors on both sides of my family, with dishes I seriously enjoyed during my youthful travels through Germany, be relevant in today’s über-multi-ethnic culinary landscape?
This is why I chose German cuisine for the spotlight. Sure, I could have called on the cozy familiarties of my childhood: the Italian-American Sunday Supper has been mythologized ad infinitum, but it’s what I know too, the cauldron filled with spicy sausages and mouth-watering meatballs, simmering amid the gravy (sauce in my Italian-American grandma’s kitchen); occasionally my grandfather would pluck a meatball out of the pot, risking a wooden spoon to the back of the hand from my feisty grandma. I asked my mom about this yesterday, and she recalled her half-German grandmother, my grandfather’s mom, cooking up her favorite family meal on weekends: sauerbraten and kartoffelkloesse. She even called it that, the word flowing off her solely English-speaking tongue, kartoffelkloesse, or potato dumplings. She loved that dish, she told me, and I concurred, since one of my favorite food memories is dining on (veal) sauerbraten with my dad on a trip through Germany — that’s my dad, a man named Liam, who also had German roots but who I always identified more as Irish. But rather than digress into an identity-searching foray led by that lonnnng-marinated meat dish with the sour sauce, let’s take a look at a few theories as to why German food is so lost in the American mindset.
I can understand this misconception. Potato dumplings aren’t the most flavorful things in the world. When I asked my friend Brendan to join me for lunch at Heidelberg [*] he hastily agreed, lured more by the memory of visiting his grandmother in the Upper East Side/Yorkville German neighborhood than by the food. While he was raised on sausages and schnitzel, Brendan’s a longtime vegetarian; it occurred to me at the momement that the only thing less appetizing to most Americans than German food is German vegetarian food. As for Brendan, he gamely ordered the spaetzle and shared a plate of, um, well done potato pancakes with me; the Warsteiner beer atoned for the kitchen’s minor sins. In stories later today, a few daring German-American chefs will argue why German cuisine is actually much more diverse than we realize, and how it can serve as the basis for inventive, ingredient-driven cooking. That’s my thesis too.
IT’S TOO RICH
Well yes, if you believe that German food consists of sausages, fried meat cutlets, all sorts of potatoes dishes and the occasional noodles covered in butter and cheese. This is of course not the case, and in fact I’m told that Berlin is fast-becoming one of the world’s most vegan-friendly cities.
Well, it’s difficult to pronouce, yes. It’s also a bit mystifying, given how little we know of German cuisine. I remember how deflated I felt on my first trip to Munich as a 20-year-old when I looked at the array of sausages on a menu and had no clue what to order, my lackluster German-speaking abilities failing to help me understand anything the waiter told me. I just pointed, and ended up with a pretty good but slightly unsatisfying würst of some sort that thanfully perked up with mustard. (Too bad I didn’t have access to our story 10 German Sausages To Know And Love.) The ingredients can be daunting as well. In his cookbook Neue Cuisine, the Austrian New York chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, who cooked for years in Munich, devotes an entire page to explaining the very German side dish white asparagus (it’s in season right now through June, so you’ll likely see it around). Here’s an excerpt: “White asparagus should be cooked, typically in plenty of boiling water, immediately after it’s peeled. Traditionally the water is seasoned with salt, sugar, and butter. I often add a piece of white bread or baguette to the pot to help remove any bitterness from the asparagus.” Sheesh, that’s a lot of work for a bland-tasting vegetable.
IT’S HISTORY’S FAULT
As I’ve tried to reconcile the lack of German cuisine in today’s food-obsessed culture, I came up with this theory: the Nazis ruined German food for everyone. Maybe it’s too facile an explanation, but I’m guessing there’s some shame associated with German-Americans of mixed heritage. I never got a chance to ask my grandfather why he played up his Italian roots when his own mother cooked such a mean sauerbraten, but I’d imagine that a World War II vet, even a Marine who served in the Asian theater, wouldn’t want to identify too closely with another Axis enemy. Of course, the end of WWII had a profound impact on an entire generation, and the post-war era called for a lot of healing, so maybe German cuisine became something of a casualty in itself. I mean, yes, there is an American chain restaurant called Weinerschnitzel, but its hot dog and hamburger-themed menu is not really doing German cuisine any favors (though curious fact, the familiar “W” logo for the chain was created by noted designer and Academy Award-winning director Saul Bass).
IT’S NOT SEXY
No less an adventurous, open-minded traveler than Anthony Bourdain opened the 2009 Berlin episode of No Reservations by saying, “Frankly, I put off doing this show for a long time because, you know, tuba music, Kraftwerk, scary bad guys, sausages, beer — beer is good.” Coming from a man that has no problem eating street food in unusual places of questionable hygiene, that’s an outright diss. Only the beer is good? (He did, it should be noted, also visit Heidelberg in the episode.)
Today, we will disprove this — though of course we will feature a story on noteworthy German beers. What’s that? Beer’s not your thing. Well there’s plenty of great German wine to be had. We’ve told you all about Reislings in the past, but our wine writer Chad Walsh points out that for those who want a red, try 2011 Riedlin Rot. And as for the trendy thing, I’ve seen spaetzle popping up as a side on menus at respected non-strictly-German restaurants like Prime Meats in Brooklyn and Fish & Game in Hudson, New York, so maybe elements of German cuisine are already creeping into the culinary zeitgeist. New wines, bold flavors, the inimitable currywurst, regional specialties that are almost completely foreign and thus undiscovered in America — these are all reasons to give German food a chance.
Please check back throughout the day for recipes, interviews with German cuisine crusaders and yes, beer. And tell us about your own experiences with German food here in the comments; we’d love to keep the conversation going.
[*]Heidelberg is actually worth a visit (more info on their website), both for the history and for the fact that they’ve had their façade covered for years as the 2nd Avenue subway construction has continued. Also, while I was there, I saw a woman come in, say to the waitress, “I really needed good German food,” to which the waitress replied, “We can take care of that.” Awww. And while you’re in the ‘hood, go to the German butcher and food shop next door, Schaller & Weber (1654 2nd. Ave., New York, NY, 212-879-3047), which carries an impressive array of sausages and packaged spaetzles.
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