The third winter of World War I, whose beginning a century ago is commemorated this year, is also referred to in German as the Hungerwinter or Steckrübenwinter (Rutabaga winter). The blockade of Germany through the North Sea cut the country off from overseas trade and supplies, and the potato crop in 1916 had failed. As a result rutabagas, until that time mainly grown as animal fodder, became a staple of the 1,000-calorie ration-card diet for civilians.
Marlene Dietrich was then a teenager in Berlin. She would recall with a shudder how her family ate rutabagas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and in every possible form. Most people’s faces turned yellow from all the rutabagas, hers didn’t. Her perfect, porcelain-like complexion stood out already then.
After World War II, rutabagas again were a survival food. It is understandable that it took decades for Germans to warm up to rutabagas again. In the 1990s rutabagas were still almost impossible to find. My mother, when she craved a hearty rutabaga stew from her childhood, had to ask her cousin in rural Westphalia to find her a couple of rutabagas. Today rutabagas are again a common sight in vegetable markets in Germany. You can even buy them in the frozen foods section.
Rutabagas have also made their appearance in the United States in recent years. When I wrote the first edition of Spoonfuls of Germany in 2003, I had trouble finding a rutabaga. When I finally found one it looked like a relic from the Steckrübenwinter. And it came with a hefty price tag; if I remember correctly, I paid ten dollars.
Now rutabagas are available at many farmers’ markets and supermarkets. Last year I grew them in my garden for the first time. Their taste, of course, compares in no way to that first fibrous, thickly waxed rutabaga from ten years ago.
As for Marlene Dietrich, she left Germany and rutabagas behind in 1930 and moved to Hollywood. What she did not leave behind was her lifelong love for German cuisine.
The star was legendary for her cooking. Having 300 to 500 crabs delivered – which she cleaned herself – when she hosted a dinner party was nothing unusual. She cooked for friends, her many lovers, and the crews on her film sets. And like every passionate cook, she collected recipes, sometimes ripped out of a newspaper or jotted down on a scrap of paper. A delightful account of Marlene Dietrich and food is a small book bound in red satin (seen in the photo above) by Georg A. Weth, Ick will wat Feinet, “I want something good to eat” in Berlin vernacular.
If Marlene Dietrich lived today, I think there is a good chance she would have written a cookbook. I imagine a title like The Blue Angel in the Kitchen, or Comfort Food by Marlene.
She might also have tweeted. Made #rutabagas for #dinner last night bad #childhoodfood memory much better than I thought #tasty #musttry #recipe.
Rutabaga Fritters (Steckrübenpuffer)
Rutabaga Puree, a North German specialty, is a recipe included in my book Spoonfuls of Germany. The recipe for Cream of Rutabaga Soup can be found in my article about German dinner party ideas for fall in Plum Deluxe.
This weekend I made rutabaga fritters which are similar to potato latkes.
1 pound (450 g) peeled rutabaga
1 small yellow onion
1 large egg
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs
2 teaspoons dark brown sugar
Oil for frying
1. Grate the rutabagas and mix them with ½ teaspoon salt in a bowl. Let stand for a few minutes, then squeeze to remove most of the liquid.
2. Chop the onion finely by hand or puree it in the food processor (since I already had the food processor out for grating the rutabaga, I used the blade to puree the onion). Add it to the rutabaga.
3. Beat the egg and add it to the rutabaga with ¼ teaspoon salt, thyme, sugar and a generous amount of black pepper. Mix well. At the end add the panko and briefly mix again.
4. Heat enough oil to cover the bottom of a non-stick skillet. Place about 2 tablespoons for each fritter in the skillet, not more than 3 to 4 fritters total for a 9-inch (22.5-cm) pan. As the fritters are frying, gently flatten them with a spatula.
5. Once the fritters are browned on one side, carefully turn them over and brown from the other side. Degrease on paper towels and fry the remaining fritters, adding more oil to the pan as needed.
Makes 12 fritters