Black Forest Cake is traditionally snow-white and decorated with a circle of cherries. Not my grandmother’s Black Forest Cake – hers was pink. She always made it that way, and I have never baked a Black Forest Cake using any other recipe. Whether my grandmother shared my aversion to candied cherries, or they were an expensive, unnecessary and probably hard-to-find ingredient in post-War Germany, I don’t know. As she did, I decorate my Black Forest Cake with only shavings of dark chocolate. For special occasions such as a birthday, I might reach for the pastry bag and decorate the cake with whipped cream rosettes.
Each time I post a photo of the cake on my Facebook page, it provokes many comments, ranging from amused to angry – how dare I declare this pink monster a Black Forest Cake! It does not matter that I am very particular about the ingredients and the process. Store-bought canned sour cherries won’t do, I preserve my own sour cherries from local orchards every summer just for Black Forest Cake. My cake does not look like the standard Black Forest Cake, and that’s enough for some people to question its claim to be a true specimen of the most famous of all German cakes.Over the course of the past year, with my participation in the Year of German-American Friendship, I have thought a lot about what qualifies as German. My goal is to show that German America comes in many different flavors today: a fruit grower, miller, butcher, and brewer with German ancestry that reaches back generations; two German immigrant brothers serving up German Döner, Germany’s most popular fast food besides currywurst, in Los Angeles; or a young Asian-American woman in New York City baking the most delectable authentic Lebkuchen I have eaten on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The question what defines German has been an ongoing and often troubling topic for me all my life simply because of who I am – a product of a mixed marriage, with a German mother and a Tunisian father.My father arrived in Germany in the early 1960s. His plan was to stay for a few months, make some money and then move on to Montreal, where as a francophone he knew the language. Then he met my mother, and stayed.
Although my parents came from different cultures, I did not grow up bicultural. We spoke German, celebrated all the German holidays, and everything was pretty much like in any other German family. Except with my dark eyes and curly dark hair I did not look German, and my name wasn’t German. Importantly, I felt German, only German, but my surroundings did not perceive me as German. As a child I wished nothing more than to have straight blond hair and have my middle name, Christine, be my first name so that I would blend in better.There were not many other kids like me. Discrimination was subtle but constant. I was always made to feel I was different, an outsider. Shopkeepers and other strangers would talk to me in primitive German, gesticulating with every word because they thought I did not understand. There would often be the inevitable question about where I was from and it was only satisfied when I disclosed that my father was from Tunisia.
I can only speculate about the doors that were shut in front of me, and about the chances I did not get because of my Mediterranean looks and Arab name. Upon graduating from high school, when I requested applications to universities, all universities except one sent me the paperwork for foreigners, automatically assuming from my name I was not a German citizen. The only university that sent me the right forms was the University of Bonn. Out of spite that’s where I studied, and it turned out to be an excellent choice.After getting my Master’s degree and working abroad for a few years, I returned to Germany to work as an editor. If language had not been my primary tool at work, I might still be living in Germany today. I was getting fed up by people complimenting me on my fluent, accent-free German.
I applied for jobs in London and decided to cast my fate to the long-shot chance of winning an immigrant visa in the United States Green Card Lottery. I was lucky. I was one of the 50,000 winners from a pool of more than eight million. The Green Card was my big chance to get out of Germany. In January 1998, I moved to New York City.Germany today is a very different country, it is not the homogenous society any longer it was when I grew up. Every fifth German resident has a migration background. How the country is managing the challenges of integration is a different story but it’s an irreversible fact, Germany has become a country of immigrants.
Do I have regrets that I left? No. I did not want to wait around for Germany to change. America provided the much-needed clean slate for me, a fresh start. Yet at the same time moving to America brought out and solidified my German-ness. And ironically, I ended up living in rural Pennsylvania Dutch country, with traces of German immigrants at every corner.For the past sixteen years, I have cooked my way through German cuisine, and written about it primarily for American readers, first in my cookbook, and since 2012 on this blog. I would have never done any of this if I had stayed in Germany. Getting out was my way of getting into it – and for the first time in my life I truly appreciated my German heritage.
I find that Germans in America are often stuck in a time capsule, in a Germany from decades ago that does not in any way reflect the Germany of today. And similarly, German “culture” in America is often reduced to beer-swaying merriment (thank you Oktoberfest). My fellow blogger Karen aka German Girl in America, when we compare notes about the German stereotypes we encounter, always says, “We have a lot of work to do.”If the Year of German-American Friendship succeeds in giving Americans a glimpse into the countless colorful, diverse, and vibrant facets of Germany today, its mission will have been accomplished.
In view of all this, my grandmother’s Black Forest Cake is very much in sync with the time, isn’t it? It looks different from what you expect. That does not mean that it cannot claim that it’s indeed a Black Forest Cake. And an utterly delicious one at that, as I am assured every time I make it.