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.
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.