Spoonfuls of Germany

The charm of the Schnittchen


Ham on buttered pumpernickel with halved Mexican sour gherkins

German Schnittchen, the open-faced, bite-sized sandwiches served on a board, instead of a plate, at dinnertime, are cultural manifestations of the square, fuddy-duddy German lifestyle known as “spießig” in German. In the same ilk as garden dwarfs, if you know what I mean.

The small boards on which Schnittchen are served are impractical. The crumbs fall off. The whole sandwich itself can slide off, before reaching the living room sofa if you don’t carry it perfectly upright.

Schnittchen as a dinner fare are usually not consumed at the dining table. They are an invention from the 1950s, and the genuine form of the German TV dinner. Schnittchen also became a popular fingerfood passed around to guests to go along with a glass of wine or beer. Schnittchen are a quick fix when people show up impromptu and you want to feed them something.

The most famous Schnittchen incident is the skit by the German humorist Loriot, in which housewife Frau Hoppenstedt lets three salesmen for wines, vacuum cleaners and life insurance into her apartment and all of them end up plastered from sampling the wines on the living room sectional with a pile of Schnittchen.

In my family, we never had Schnittchen because we never ate dinner in front of the TV. We usually had a warm meal at nighttime. The 1970s board (bought at the coffee chain Tchibo, more about that in a previous blog post) I salvaged from my parents’ a few years ago was used as a cutting board, and not as sandwich board. The bottom of it is scratched and worn but the top is still in perfect condition, and I hold onto it with nostalgia because the bright green flower pattern instantly transports me back to my childhood.

Whole-wheat herb bread with lacey Swiss cheese and cucumber

So, no Schnittchen tradition in my family but I brought back a few boards again from my recent trip to Germany. Not necessarily to serve Schnittchen; I like using the boards to cut or serve cheese or bread. But I admit, once in a while I do make myself a real Schnittchen. It is easy to eat at my desk, and the neatly cut bite-sized pieces have a taste of homey goodness that a regular sandwich doesn’t have.

Maybe it is not that odd that Schnittchen taste that way for me. They represent something that has been lost in many families – that someone, and that someone usually being the wife or mother, takes the time to prepare them instead of popping a pizza baguette or some other convenience food into the microwave, a habit that becomes more common in Germany too. On each of my visits to Germany I walk up and down the supermarkets aisles noticing they nowadays do not look much different from any American supermarket filled with convenience foods.

While Schnittchen as a food are a relic of time when moms and grandmas lovingly made them, the boards themselves are by no means outdated. Today they are sold as Frühstücksbrettchen (breakfast boards) and I am always surprised at the huge selection, with hundreds of patterns and funny, daft or cheeky slogans. It’s the German form of bumper stickers, just that they are on the breakfast table.

I passed on boards with dancing cows and cute kittens, and slogans like “I only drink beer on days ending in -y” and “No breakfast is perfect without a few dog hairs”, and bought the plainest wooden boards I could find. Because when I am making Schnittchen once in a while, it has to be in true old-fashioned style, without any distraction.




20 thoughts on “The charm of the Schnittchen

  1. Your posts are balm for the soul! They resonate with my feelings and settle the ache for my other home. Thank you thank you!

  2. We used the boards in the evening with broths hen & lunch meat every day at the kitchen table.

  3. Yummy – love schnittchen!! You’ve done them so beautifully!

  4. Thanks again for bringing up memories to my childhood supper (german: Abendbrot)! I do remember this board on the 2nd photo, there were even boards in the form of a tomato and a green green pepper on our table (as well bought at Tchibo’s). But those boards only were used for family supper. If there were “sudden geusts”, Schnittchen were offered on oval porcelain plates, there was even a special one with shapes for hard boied eggs. This was the high-end-one, used for more formal family reunions with cold buffet.
    We never had supper in front of the TV: we did had none, because my mother was of the opinion that this was somekind of an infernal machine.

  5. While I am not German (my Husbands family is Polish but has similar traditions) this totally resonates with me and makes me realize how important the food we lovingly prepare for our families that is not taken from a microwave but real food lovingly prepared and arranged. I still do things like this today as often as possible and know that my Son will also have these memories. Thanks for such wonderful postings.

  6. My friend Marianna made her own sauerkraut, 500 cookies at Christmas (not believe till one of her 4 sons brought down from another room. She made over 40 cakes for a weeding. This around 1972. When I came back for a visit in 1992, I could not believe all the American type frozen foods. Then I was served Pillsberry Breakfast Strudels at her daughter-in-laws apartment!!

  7. Mexican gherkins sound exciting! I remember my surprise to find many homes in the UK in the 80s and 90s had done away with a dining table altogether! We had Schnittchen for New Year’s, pumpernickel with home-cured gravad lax …

  8. Memories of a wonderful 15 years spent in Germany owning a Deli came rushing back. Ty

  9. Ha ha! My 87 year old mother still uses these impractical boards nearly every day. With accompanying crumbs everywhere.

  10. May I ask where you purchase these? My husband had two from the 1970’s that were his grandmothers and held a great deal of sentimental value. We lost everything in the Louisiana floods in 2016 and these were a great loss for him. I’m trying to surprise him with some for Christmas this year, but I can’t seem to find where I can purchase them. Can you help?

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