In July 2005, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ran an almost full-page article about my cookbook in its Sunday edition. I was tickled pink to be featured in one of Germany’s leading newspapers, and the article by food writer Peter Peter was spot on. Peter has written several well-received books, including an excellent monograph on the cultural history of German cuisine (his latest book, on Austrian cuisine, will be released this spring), and he is intimately familiar with the gap between the negative reputation of Germany’s cuisine and its tremendous variety and potential.
My mother was of course happy about the article but also not amused. In the subtitle the newspaper referred to me as the “daughter of a Tunisian native and a Westphalian housewife.”
It is accurate that my mother is from Westphalia yet she does not fit in any way the stereotype of a housewife. She had a career, and she always worked. Although she only received a basic education – college for a girl from a rural area and with limited means was out of the question in 1950s Germany – she found her own way to England and Switzerland as an au pair to study English and French. Now in her mid-seventies, my mother is still trim and fit, and more comfortable in a bathing suit swimming laps than standing at the stove in an apron. She was never much of a passionate cook, which she freely admits.
I can somewhat understand that it was all too tempting for the newspaper to turn my mother into a “Westphalian housewife“ (a term that has become a standing joke between us). Sharpening the contrast between my parents’ backgrounds made it an even better story! As if the fact that the product of an intercultural marriage between a German and an Arab, who ends up in the United States writing about German cuisine, wasn’t already odd enough.
Westphalia rightfully has the ring of homey and hearty. The signature bread of the region is Pumpernickel, the black wholesome sourdough rye bread that is more steamed than baked for up to 24 hours. What is sold as pumpernickel in the United States is usually a far cry from the real thing. Real pumpernickel comes pre-sliced in small flat packages, and it is so moist that the slices stick together. Westphalia is also famous for its Knochenschinken (ham on the bone), either air-dried or smoked over beechwood, and Mettwurst (soft smoked sausage). To wash it down, there is Steinhäger, a rye schnapps made with fermented juniper berries in tall glazed earthenware bottles. The traditional bottle label shows the triumverate of Westphalian food: schnapps, ham, and pumpernickel.
Not all Westphalian bread is as dark as pumpernickel. The other bread specialty is Stuten, a white yeast bread, studded with raisins or plain. The region is also known for various varieties of potato pancakes called Pickert, served sweet with jam, apple sauce or molasses, or savory, spread with liverwurst.
My favorite Pickert is Kastenpickert, a variety my grandmother used to make. It is a moist, yeasted potato bread with or without raisins and baked in a loaf pan. Afterwards it is cut into thick slices and pan-fried in butter or oil, looking a bit like French Toast.
As far as I recall, my mother never baked a Kastenpickert. In that respect, I might qualify better as a Westphalian housewife than she does.