There’s no beating around the bush – German cuisine is neither hip nor cool. The Washington Post, in a March 2018 article entitled “Grandma’s food’: How changing tastes are killing German restaurants”, explained well why German restaurants in America, some of them over 100 years old, are closing all across the country. Their clientele is simply disappearing, and the grandchildren of their loyal customers, while they might visit Berlin, viewed as the most exciting city in Europe, they don’t return with a craving for German food that makes them seek out the German restaurant in town. Nor do millennials hurry to the kitchen to cook something German.
Recognizing this sad situation, my idea for this month’s topic of The German-American Friendship Year, to peek into cooking pots and ask people to post photos of German dishes on Instagram under #AmericaCooksGerman, seemed to defy gravity. Still, Karen aka German Girl in America gracefully came along for the ride. We were both aware that most people who cook German in America are not on Instagram so we offered to share their photos under their name. Karen wondered whether we would get 300 photos of schnitzel and beef roll-ups. I wondered whether we would get more than a handful of photos from friends and family sympathetic to our hopeful undertaking.
Surprise! At the end of the two weeks, there was a diverse collection of German dishes, including the popular Bavarian cheese spread Obatzda, Soup with Farina Dumplings (Grießklößchensuppe), schnitzel, and lentils, and also the Swabian specialty Lentils with Spaetzle.
German street food was in the mix, too. College student @sperizer shared photos of making Döner Kebab: “Created a little Germany in our kitchen today with the best street food around.” (for more about Germany’s most popular street food made in America, read my November blog post for The German-American Friendship Year).
German Girl in America was right about the beef roll-ups, those seem to be especially popular. They are the epitome of German comfort food in the wintertime.
There were photos of wholesome German breads and rolls (Brötchen). And, of course, pretzels, which are probably the most ubiquitous German-American food of all. In 2017, The Monument Lab at the University of Pennsylvania even called upon young artists to come up with designs for a pretzel monument in the city (for which I wrote a supporting piece which you can read here).
And then there were lots of sweet treats like typical German sheet cakes (Blechkuchen) with apples or plums, and sweet plum dumplings. There were Christmas delights like lebkuchen (in December, I wrote on this blog about Sandy Lee, who bakes authentic Lebkuchen in New York City). There was also a bunch of Springerle photos. Unlike in Germany, in the United States Springerle have a dedicated year-round following of hobby bakers and small artisan bakeries like Alabama-based @gingerlilyweets and Georgia-based @kitchenwixenjen (more about Springerle in America in this blog post).
@kurtrosetree posted slices of his homemade Stollen adding, “Is it wrong to want to eat my homemade Stollen for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks in between? Asking for a friend.” It made me laugh out loud and think of the countless times I have eaten Stollen for breakfast with the excuse that it’s a yeasted bread after all, and thus perfectly acceptable breakfast fare.
I was excited to see some unusual desserts like Kalter Hund (No-Bake Chocolate Cake, find my recipe here); Rotkäppchenkuchen, a cake that got its name, Red Riding Hood Cake, from the vibrant cherry topping; and Eisenbahnschnitten (Almond Cream Apricot Bars). German cuisine has a vast number of dishes using leftover bread and it was great to see Scheiterhaufen, a delicious apple bread pudding, popping up in the Instagram feed.
Eleanor Oliver from Washington D.C. sent me a picture of her adorable Igel (hedgehog) cake. That dessert is a rarity nowadays in Germany but there is a recipe for it in a German cookbook whose authors toured senior citizen homes around Germany, asking residents about their favorite dishes, then cooking a meal together (more about this project here).
“The Igel is still my Easter specialty,” Eleanor wrote. “Together with the grandchildren I carefully construct the lady fingers and buttercream into an Igel. Then I sit down with the children and patiently poke every toasted almond sliver into place. A little coconut dyed spring green and a few jelly beans for that American touch and our Oster Schleckerei (Easter treat) is complete!”
I also want to give a shout-out to our northern neighbors who contributed photos. Although #AmericaCooksGerman is technically about German cooking in the United States because it’s part of The Year of German-American Friendship, it was wonderful to see that there are Canadians who care so much about German food that they shared their photos.
You can view the entire collection here (note that it does not require an Instagram account).
Far beyond collecting photos, what made #AmericaCooksGerman so fascinating are the stories that transpired, and the people with whom I connected.
It provides a glimpse into what it meant to be German-American in times when Germany’s standing in the world was at its lowest. As Eleanor wrote, “I entered Kindergarten in 1942 so my family enjoyed their German heritage quietly at home and with other German families. We made little fanfare that we were German.”
People did not just share photos but also memories.
Dan Schneider from Toledo, Ohio, who initially sent me a photo of his Springerle cookies, wrote, “I wish I had a picture of the potato pancakes my dad and Uncle Paul used to make. My dad had an old hand crank grater that they bolted to the table and they would make these in the wee hours of the morning after returning from the local tavern. That’s a whole story by itself but the potato pancakes were always outstanding.”
Susan Bold Reed from New Jersey had a lovely Stollen story to share alongside her photo. “My grandmother, who was born in Stuttgart and came to the US when she was 16 years old, always made Stollen for Christmas breakfast. She always braided hers. When she died 50 years ago, I continued the tradition, and this Christmas was my 50th Stollen!”
@nikkioutwest, a native of Bavaria who offers baking classes in Virginia, made me reconsider what I have been pondering doing myself for a while when I read this, “Diving deep into German pastry baking traditions with yet another group of charming, enthusiastic and committed bakers last night. I count myself more than lucky to be able to connect with so many lovely people over the shared passion for pastry baking. The joy I feel when we exchange food stories, baking wisdom and the occasional German word is one of the most grounding experiences I‘ve had since moving stateside.”
#AmericaCooksGerman also had me take a closer look at Dirndl Kitchen. Sophie, who moved to the United States from her native German ten years ago, blogs out of Kansas with a fresh, young outlook on German cuisine and lifestyle while making use of the entire repertoire of social media tools to build her brand.
Other photo submitters have no family connection to Germany whatsoever, such as blogger Jennifer Goycochea who told me, “I love German food because it’s so humble and comforting. I was recently in Munich and Frankfurt and enjoyed being able to try all the food first hand.”
Claudia Royston, who studied in Munich for three years and now owns the culinary travel company Global Gourmands, is offering a tour to Germany “so people can see for themselves how imaginative and inspiring contemporary German food is.”
I also found Americans of German descent who are curious about their culinary heritage. @dew_of_the_sea posted a photo of a vegan German apple cake that caught my attention. Her mother’s family had a bakery in downtown Albany, New York that is long gone, and she said, “I wish I could have gotten some recipes directly from there but the bakery closed a while before I was born.” Besides the apple cake, she has veganized a German-inspired noodle dish her mother used to make with bacon and kielbasa, as well as German potato salad.
It did not always require a photo to have people share their German food story. Upon my call for German food photos on my Facebook page, Shannon Owens commented that her family emigrated from Germany in colonial times, however no German food traditions whatsoever had been handed down. “Lots of things were lost over time,” she explained. After initially settling in Pennsylvania, the family moved on to Ohio or Indiana. Shannon was born in California, and by serendipity now lives with her family not far from where her ancestors initially settled in Pennsylvania.
“Once I got out of college and got married,” Shannon said, “I was able to experiment more with food and looked for things that were part of our roots, trying to find bits of our old culture that we can add as family traditions because there really weren’t any. We even picked names within our backgrounds for your daughters, one is named Lorelei. And I started collecting cookbooks and picking dishes from different countries for holiday meals.” For German cuisine, she started with soups and desserts “because you can get anyone to eat those.”
There are many, many more stories out there and therefore I wish #AmericaCooksGerman wouldn’t stop and people would continue to share their photos on Instagram. Because all those memories, recipes and stories should be recorded before they vanish.
The only way to do this is if the younger generations sit down with the older generations in their family and start talking, asking questions and, using the gadgets that are in their hands virtually at all times, capture German food traditions in America.
The article in The Washington Post states that “German food seems stodgy. Not to mention that in the age of Instagram, it suffers from an acute case of brown. It’s also hearty, heavy and boasts enough starches to make ketogenic, gluten-free Whole 30 adherents lose their minds — which makes it seem out of place in our current food culture.”
If you take a look at the small sampling of photos collected during #AmericaCooksGerman, you realize that’s not necessarily the case. German Girl in America and I agree that we need to continue pushing German food out of its time warp. “Our work is far from over,” she wrote to me last week.
Now at least we know there are allies out there.