Food and Culture in Austria
Small wonder that the Austrian is said to be preoccupied with the subject of food. For over 600 years the vast Austro-Hungarian Empire enveloped the languages, traditions, and food customs of more than a dozen nations. Even today, Vienna conjures up visions of opulent architecture, lilting waltzes, and mounds of whipped cream. And though 1918 saw the end of the empire and the opulence, the love of music and intense appreciation of an Austrian cuisine remains.
With seemingly endless appetite, the Austrian feinschmecher (gourmet) enjoys pastas, veal dishes, and tomato sauces from Italy, potato dishes and sauerkraut from Germany, dumplings in great array from the Czech Republic, vegetables and rice dishes from the Balkans, sour-cream cookery and soups from Poland and Russia, coffee from Turkey. But from Hungary, Austrians will only willingly admit to the acquisition of paprika. Their beloved strudel and torten, crescents and rolls, and fine breads are, how-ever, of Austrian origin. When in Austria no one would dare argue otherwise.
If this claim of absorption with food seems unjustified, one should consider that although Austria is a predominantly scenic and mountainous country, its manicured farms, pastures, vineyards, and orchards produce all the necessities of the diet and do so relatively inexpensively. From Austria’s granary in Lower Austria come wheat, barley, rye, and corn as well as grapes from the vineyards. From Styria, over 170 branches of the “Fresh Egg Service” supply eggs, while other areas produce fruits and berries, cattle and dairy products. And though Vienna is highly industrialized, the city is surrounded by areas engaged in mixed farming and animal husbandry. The smallest Alpine province, Vorarlberg, caters to the complete set of sweet teeth that every Austrian has, and produces famed chocolates and candies.
Despite an immersion in food, wine, and music, the country’s history is not a happy one. As in most empires, those who were forcibly made a part of it resented their oppression. Torn between German and Hungarian affiliations, most immigrants solved the dilemma by referring to themselves not as Austrians but as Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croatians, Serbs, Magyars, Romanians, Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, Italians, or Macedonians. But in 1918, after Austria was established as a republic, almost 90 percent of her population was Roman Catholic and almost 99 percent were German-speaking.
Though most Austrian immigrants to America speak German and are German in spirit, they have — with the exception of the groups mentioned above – melded into North American society, caring little for Austrian newspapers or Austrian organizations, yet their ties and justifiable pride in Austrian cuisine remain.
The neat little Austrian kitchen has everything necessary to prepare fine foods lovingly, with everything in its special place. The kitchen may be the work-shop, but the dining room is the stage; fine linens, fresh flowers, and sparkling dishes have retained their importance here.
Even with the presence of supermarkets and avail-ability of prepared foods and mixes, canned and frozen delicacies, the Austrian homemaker prefers to shop daily in her favorite small specialty shops where she feels certain the proprietor will give her the best. Fresh fruits and tender fresh vegetables are still favored and their seasonal succulence is treasured. Because of the routine of daily shopping, large refrigerators are really not a necessity, but cold pantries are still filled with a proud array of home pickles and preserves, prepared when time permits.
Currently there is some deviation from this traditional pattern, as increasingly women are taking jobs and finding their cooking and shopping time limited. Supermarkets and the prepared-foods industry are expanding and even the long-established pattern of six meals a day is shrinking both in number and quantity of food consumed as people became more acutely aware of a healthier lifestyle.