Ask any foreigner what comes to mind when they hear German food, and you will most likely get an answer like this: men in lederhosen and women in dirndl dresses, eating sausage, bratwurst, mounds of sauerkraut and potatoes, washing it all down with immense amount of beer in steins, in an alpine setting to the sound of yodeling.
After cooking and eating my way through more than 200 German regional dishes, I know this image does German cuisine terrible injustice. But what’s there to do if the food served in most restaurants fits those stereotypes all too well? I received a symptomatic comment last week from another blogger, a Swedish girl who is currently living in Berlin. She wanted to try real German food and was disappointed when she was served the typical fare of sausages with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes, and for dessert what seemed to be a ghastly version of Rote Grütze, the red fruit pudding that is heavenly when made the right way.
Although in the past decade there has been a trend in Germany to bring back the diversity of German cuisine – numerous regional cookbooks have been published, and the locavore movement is gaining momentum among chefs and home cooks – there is still a deep misconception about German food among Germans themselves. When I talk to my mother on the phone these days, I always give her an account of the recipes I tested for my cookbook, and half of them are completely strange to her. It feels like I am giving her reports from some exotic country, while she is actually the one in Germany, and I am sitting here in Pennsylvania surrounded by stacks of German cookbooks. When I made chestnut soup in October, our visiting friends from Berlin immediately thought it was an Italian dish. They were surprised to hear it was a recipe from Palatinate, an area rich in chestnuts and burgeoning food tourism during chestnut harvest.
Food stereotypes crisscross worldwide, and in all directions. German food is heavy, and so are the East European cuisines with their starchy dumplings. Indian food is spicy. American food is hamburgers and hot dogs, and, maybe, for the well-traveled, Reuben sandwich and pumpkin pie. The only two cuisines that seem to enjoy a spotless reputation are French and Italian.
Germans are not the only ones turning up their noses against their own cuisine. Julia Ioffe, in an article in The New Yorker last April about Russia’s lost culinary heritage and Russian food writer Maksim Syrnikov, wrote:
Russians don’t hold Russian food in particularly high esteem. When they eat out, they favor more exotic cuisines, like Italian or Japanese. (…) Russian food is pooh-poohed as unhealthy and unsophisticated. Among the many things that annoy Syrnikov is the fact that a good number of the despised Russian dishes aren’t even Russian. “I did an informal survey of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and asked them, ‘Name some traditional Russian dishes,’ ” Syrnikov told me. “What they named was horrible: borscht, which is Ukrainian, and potatoes, which are an American plant.”
You could easily substitute Russians with Germans here, and borscht with sauerkraut (not a German invention!), and it would perfectly apply to German cuisine.
It somehow makes me feel better knowing there are other cuisines out there where the real, authentic cuisine is hidden underneath a thick crust of stereotypes. With Christmas approaching, I have another consolation. From Stollen to gingerbread like Lebkuchen and Pfeffernüsse, Germany’s Christmas pastries enjoy unbiased and unblemished fame. So let Stollen be the weapon to fight the stereotype! The Stollen I baked this week is certainly large and weighty enough for the job.