Food Culture and Tradition

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German Food and Culture


As early as 100 C.E., the Roman historian Tacitus described the Germans as a “warrior nation, hard-drinking, honest and hospitable.” He spoke of German food as “simple” but hearty, that included breads and gruels made from oats, millet and barley, wild fruits and berries and wild game and fowl roasted whole on huge spits. Milk and cheese added variety, especially on the occasions when game was lacking. By 800 C.E. Charlemagne had joined the many Germanic tribes into a huge empire that included not only present day Germany but also France and parts of Italy. It was Charlemagne too who encouraged monasteries in their cultivation of vineyards, orchards, and gardens, especially herb gardens.

Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire existed for a time, but parts of it broke away and became distinctive united nations. This was also to be the fate of Germany. In fact, at the time of Tacitus’s writing, the term “Germans” referred rather loosely to all the “barbarian” tribes north of the Alps and the Rhine River including what are today known as English, Dutch, and Scandinavians. The Latin word Germania used in so many early Roman and Hellenistic writings is believed to be of Celtic origin while the later term Deutsch has a more complex origin linking both early Teutons and Saxons and referring to language as well as people. It is thought that by a mistranslation of the word Deutsch, the Germans emigrating to Pennsylvania came to be known as “Pennsylvania Dutch.”

Although Charlemagne had tried, and the people themselves dreamed of it, the hope of a united Germany was not to be. The problems which prevented unification were first, the lack of natural boundaries, and second, the fact that the German language was also spoken in other lands, so it could not be used as a unifying factor.

However, the influence of the Romans and other Europeans brought improvements at least in foods. By the Middle Ages, Germans were quaffing their hot-spiced wine from gold and silver plated vessels and downing not only spit roasted oxen but also spiced sausages and blood puddings, smoked meats and pickled fish, a great variety of fresh and dried fruits, and even spiced honey cakes. Strict adherence to church fasting days, which prohibited the consumption of meat, meant that fish was in greater use and prepared in even more ways than in present times. Spices were especially important, not only to help preserve foods but to help improve the taste of spoiled meat.

Accepted Germanic manners and customs date from Charlemagne’s time, and although there were some gradual adaptations, the prevailing pattern of manners was rigidly adhered to by all. It is believed that Charlemagne introduced the custom of dining alone with his faithful leaders while the servants were the last to eat. Later, couples often dined together, sometimes sharing a plate and eating with the fingers (before cutlery became popular), but the women would retire promptly after eating, leaving the men to their drinking and singing.

In the Renaissance period, the establishment of the Hanseatic League helped to organize and increase trade, bringing a greater variety of fish, spices, fruits, oil, and even precious sugar to German tables. Cattle and poultry production was increased both in amount and quality by special breeding. Following the ideas used in the kitchens of noblemen, foods were cooked in cauldrons suspended on hooks over open fires. There were even some primitive kitchen ranges with metal rings over wood fires to hold huge pots in which bubbled mixtures of meats, vegetables, and fragrant herbs. Local inns served sausages with white and black radishes and mugs of wine, cider, or beer, and favorite dishes included lentils or beans cooked with chunks of cured and smoked pork.

In cold weather, dried fruits were served with cured meats, and pears, apples, and plums were commonly set into banked ovens to dry after the bread had been baked. Two other dishes were already old favorites: steak Tartar, adapted from the scraped raw meat of the marauding Tartar horsemen from Mongolia, and sauerkraut, a tart fermented dish the Tartars had learned from the laborers on the Great Wall of China.

Germany as a political entity came into being on January 18, 1871, when peace was finally signed with France and Chancellor Otto von Bismarck welded the nation together. But the area itself was still far from unified. There were still pronounced regional differences in religion, customs, dialects, and even temperaments. Wars and dissension had torn the land: the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) had produced incredible devastation and starvation – people ate dogs, cats, rats, acorns, and grass. Generally, it was felt that the unification of 1871 was only a superficial one. Despite every effort, the fiercely individualistic regions could seldom reach agreement, with the result of a lack of national identity.

The discovery of America had brought many new exciting foods to European tables, but it took almost 200 years and the strong insistence of Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1744 that German peasants plant potatoes against hunger, before the potato found a firm place in German cuisine. It now appears in dozens of delicious forms from soups, thick sauces, pancakes, dumplings, and puddings, even to the making of schnapps. Cocoa and turkey came to be known, but coffee was to suffer a lack of popularity because of the national preference for beer. Brewed everywhere and enjoyed everywhere, beer was considered a food in liquid form, evidenced by a corpulence seldom seen before. Beer began and ended the day, was a part of many dishes – bierhals, bierfreund, biersack, etc. – and was the beverage for all gatherings from weddings to funerals. Its thought that the beer preference has to do with Germany’s long history of strife and wars, for the processing of beer is quicker and easier than the culture of wines.

The 1700s not only saw new foods enter the German cuisine, there were also some new customs. French influence was becoming paramount in everything to do with food and drink. Small glasses replaced huge drinking mugs; coffee, tea, and chocolate came to be sociable drinks and were served from specially made porcelain sets. Fine light bakery and flaky pastries replaced the heavy honey and spice cakes of old. The carving of huge roasts was refined to an art and matching silver sets of cutlery and carving utensils came into vogue. Even Frederick the Great of Prussia preferred speaking French to German. French cooks and cookbooks, French manners, all became an intrinsic part of the cultured upper classes and, as always, this newer protocol was rigidly adhered to.

But the German peasants, workers, and the many poor made do with their homemade beer and filled their stomachs with kraut and bacon, lentils and peas, firm satisfying breads and light dumplings. By the 1800s more than four-fifths of the German population were peasants, and their own pigs were the mainstay of their diet. Thanks to Frederick the Great, it could be said that by the end of the 1800s, “potatoes were such a regular item that smoke coming from a cottage chimney at night was almost a certain sign that inside, potatoes, bacon and onions were frying.”

Kaiser Wilhelm II ruled from 1888 to 1918. He introduced many English customs to the court since his mother was a daughter of Queen Victoria. Most popular was the introduction of large satisfying English-style breakfasts, and inns called weinstube featuring lodging and good food and wine. Kaiser Wilhelm also insisted upon menus being written in German instead of French, and he was not above enjoying robust peasant dishes. It was not long before the tastes and manners of the court were reflected in fine hotels and the burgeoning middle classes.

The industrial revolution that swept Great Britain took another hundred years before it took hold in Germany. For too long, the Germans lacked well established political and economic systems: Germany’s many fragmented provinces and states often had separate currencies and different trade tariffs. But within three years after the 1871 unification, more mines, ironworks, and blast furnaces were producing than had existed in the past seventy years.

The expansion and power of the great Krupp works paralleled the growth of Prussian power. Educational systems were keyed to industrial education and research, and this trend, together with the vast riches of natural resources and the growth of fast communication systems, spurred German genius. Welding industrial development to scientific research and careful use of resources were vital factors in Germany’s success. But so was another point: business and industries were enriched by aggressive personalities who regarded politics as too conservative.

Yet the dream of a unified Germany was still shared by political conservatives, intellectuals, and powerful businessmen. The gradual rise of the Social Democrat Party and a large working class that chafed under the collar of hard work and submissiveness expected of them caused rumblings of concern. In their gigantic industrial leap forward, they had pushed aside the periods of Classicism and Romanticism that other nations had gone through, and this lack added yet another rift to the many inner conflicts of the German people.

After the First World War, the great progress of the Second Reich was abruptly ended. New interpretations and fabrications of German history attempted to overcome the people’s sense of national failure. These theories drew largely on popular legends, on the German composer Richard Wagner’s revival of Germanic mythology, and on Gobineau’s race theory, and not least on the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “superman” and “blond beast.” Every misfortune came to be attributed to the deceit of others: “the crafty Jews, the perfidious British, the treacherous Italians” and so forth. Lacking established values and traditions and leaning heavily on a lack of reality and with a sense of despair and inferiority, the ground was laid for the horrors that came with the Second World War.

For a time Germany was split yet again into East and West. But the autumn of 1989 to the end of 1990 saw dramatic changes. The dismantling of the notorious Berlin Wall was triggered by the influx of East Germans fleeing to West Germany through Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Coinciding with the collapse of the Honecker government, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall gained a wave of unrelenting support. By the end of 1990, a unified Germany held elections for the first time in fifty-eight years. Subsequently, the reality of everyday life, economic restructuring, attacks by neo-Nazi gangs, and the pressing influx of immigrants dimmed the euphoria of unification.

Despite the current struggles, Germans are regaining their deep traditions of respect for authority and orderly living. Their great zest for life, boisterously dramatized in their festivals, is also bringing them renewed industrial and agricultural advances as well as a high general standard of living. There is a new and growing pleasure in regional German cuisine, and the celebration of regional dialects, customs, and festivals. Yet some admirable old ways remain ingrained: politeness and formality especially in names and titles, the importance of cleanliness and neatness in dress, and a strong sense of responsibility even in very young children.

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