Saying that I was nervous when I first set foot in my parents-in-law’s house the day before Thanksgiving in 2000 would be an understatement. Not only was I aware that the family of the man I was dating was Jewish. He had also told me that his mother was an accomplished embroiderer, a founding member of the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework, and that she had spent 14 years embroidering a Torah mantle with the names of 300 Holocaust victims from families in their congregation, including members of her and her husband’s own family. As a German, although one who was born 20 years after World War II, I was scared stiff.
The welcome could not have been warmer. It was a hug that lasted until they died, my father-in-law five years ago, and my-mother-in-law last week.
My German-ness was never an issue for them. For me though, the darkest period of German history was always present in their living room – in the form an intimate, tender portrait that became an infatuation of mine the first time I saw it. The painter was Hans Moller, born in Wuppertal, who left Germany in 1936 with his Jewish wife, Helen, and whom my parents-in-law befriended many years later. The gouache “Leni, mending” was one of Moller’s first works after his arrival in New York City. Each time I looked at it I felt as if I was secretly watching Leni in a shabby hotel room somewhere in Paris, sitting at the edge of the bed in her undershirt mending one of the few dresses she could take along.
It was over food that I bonded with my parents-in-law. With my father-in-law, I talked vegetable gardening, as he had been an avid gardener as long has he was physically able. With my mother-in-law, it was about cooking and languages, about the similarities between matzoball soup and German semolina dumpling soup, between challah, which I started making regularly, and German Hefezopf (Yeasted Braid). She was excited when my German cookbook was published, and she bought copies for her friends and had me sign them.
One incident sticks in my mind from the time when I worked on the cookbook. I had almost finished the manuscript, which was due at the publisher in December, but one cake in particular gave me trouble: Frankfurter Kranz, a ring-shaped sponge cake with buttercream and jam filling. German buttercream is different from American buttercream, it is made of lukewarm custard and butter, which must both have exactly the same temperature, otherwise it curdles. The problem is that American butter contains less fat than European butter. I had already baked the cake four times, and only on the fifth try, just before Thanksgiving, I finally got it right.
I brought the cake to Thanksgiving at my sister-in-law’s, hoping it would quietly disappear in the large crowd, and that I would never ever have to face a slice of Frankfurter Kranz again. Later in the afternoon, my father-in-law said to me in a low, conspirative voice, „That cake you brought…“ – I held my breath, what would he, the retired physician, and a rather frugal person, say about me bringing such a rich cake to a Thanksgiving dinner – „That cake is dangerous. I had three slices.“ And he chuckled and walked away.
When it became too much for my mother-in-law to cook, and my husband made frequent trips to check on them, I sometimes sent dishes that would withstand the 5-hour car ride. My parents-in-law tried everything; they loved Königsberger Klopse (Meatballs in Creamy Caper Sauce), Sauerbraten and other German comfort foods. My parents-in-law never visited Germany but they certainly ate a good amount of German dishes because of me.
My mother-in-law had studied German in high school, and she loved poetry all her life. After her funeral, I learned something new about her – that in 1945, she threw all her German poetry books into the fireplace.
I thought about that a lot over the last week, that and how, five decades later, she was able to welcome me into her life. Maybe, if my parents-in-law had been less accepting of me being German, maybe I would have not immersed myself in German cuisine, maybe I would have been more reluctant to literally dig into German food and embrace it as part of my cultural identity.
And thus mixed into the grief that I am feeling right now, is also immense gratitude.