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May 2004

Palatable Truths

The stories behind some of Germany's best-loved dishes

English poet and clergyman Robert Herrick (1591–1674) once wrote: “Tis not the food, but the content, that makes the table’s merriment.” And if you are looking for a little merriment with which to spice up your mealtimes, there can be no better place to start than the stories and anecdotes surrounding Germany’s culinary traditions.

Did you know that it was American Benjamin Thompson, aka Count Rumford, who popularized the potato in Bavaria? Imagine a Bavarian meal that doesn’t include Kartoffeln. Vice versa it’s hard to imagine America without that famous German export, the hamburger. It is said that this shredded beef dish was originally introduced to Germany by Russians. Later mixed with regional spices it became known as a Frikadelle and subsequently as Hamburg Steak. German immigrants are thought to have taken the dish to the United States, probably on the boats of the Hamburg-America Line sometime in the 1880s.

Another ballpark favorite of similar origin is the hot dog. In 1852, the butcher’s guild in Frankfurt introduced a spiced, smoked sausage that was packed in a thin wrapping and called it a Frankfurter, after their hometown. The butcher who had dreamed up this concoction owned a Dachshund, which presumably inspired its popular, though now largely forgotten nickname “Dachshund sausage.” Munich’s world-famous equivalent, the Weisswurst on the other hand, was discovered quite by accident. As the story goes, on February 22, 1857, in the Ewige Licht Inn on Marienplatz, the butcher Joseph Moser started the day making a local favorite, veal sausages. Upon discovering the usual sausage skins, made of sheep gut, had run out, he filled the light colored sausage meat into large casings from pig intestines instead and warmed them in hot water, fearing the skins would burst if fried or grilled as usually prepared. Bayerischer süsser Senf, the must-have condiment for this popular combination, was invented in 1854 by Johann Conrad Develey, who ran a mustard factory down the street on Kaufingerstrasse. The imaginative Swiss businessman added vinegar, sugar and spices to yellow and brown mustard, boiled the mixture and consequently cornered the market with his sweetened version.

And what about the obligatory Brezen that are so often served up with Weisswürste and Senf? This is probably an evolution of Roman ring bread. Transformed from its original round shape to one that symbolized arms and hands locked together in prayer, it was primarily prepared during religious holidays in Bavaria. Its name, an abbreviation of the word Brezitella from Old-High German, is a rough translation of the Latin Brachiatellium, meaning little arms. How about a little of that addictive cheese spread, Obazda, to go with your Brezen? This creation, like the Weisswurst, was the result of a lucky accident. In the 1920s at the Weihenstephaner Bräustüberl in the Weihenstephan monastery located north of Munich, an over order of small Camembert rounds was saved from ruin by mixing in spices, onions and a bit of beer. Leberkäse, which sounds as if it should contain both liver and cheese, in fact contains neither. Instead the name is a corruption of the Old German terms Lab and Kasi, which are connected with the coagulation of meat protein through a process of cooking or frying. Karl Theodor of Wittelsbach brought his personal butcher from Mannheim to Munich in 1777. It was he who first baked a blend of finely chopped pork and beef in the form of a loaf. An excerpt from an Upper Bavarian ode to the Leberkäse explains how this foodstuff should be enjoyed: “… Every person knows that this should be eaten hot because the soul relaxes when steamed a little! … Yes, a real pleasure until a belch marks the end of the meal.”

The aristocracy was not only nourished, but also honored by unique dishes like the Prinzregententorte. Cleverly designed, this layered cake fashioned for Prince Regent Luitpold symbolizes the eight Bavarian governmental districts spanning the years 1815 to 1946. Another favorite dessert found across Bavaria, Kaiserschmarrn, is actually Viennese in origin and was probably brought to the region by the imperial court when Emperor Franz Joseph and his consort Princess Elisabeth spent their summers in the Salzkammergut resort of Bad Ischl. The most famous German specialty and one of the oldest holiday confections, Lebkuchen, is surrounded by superstitions. Because its ingredients were once believed to exert healing powers and protection from evil spirits, gingerbread was placed in Egyptian royal burial chambers in the 14th century BC. In pre-Christian Europe, mystical powers were also attributed to honey and honey biscuits were traditionally eaten on feast days to ward off evil spirits. The powers of Lebkuchen were considered so potent that in order to guarantee a good harvest the following year, farmers’ wives would rub the bark of fruit trees while their hands were still smeared with the dough. It was also said that if the shape did not come out correctly, she would probably die in the coming year.

Though many stories circulate about the true origins of certain German foods, it’s their distinctive tastes that remain tradition for epicureans.

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