German Eating Culture

Our current unit in German class is about food and eating, and our workbook’s section on German ‘Eating culture’ (‘Essenkultur’) has helped explain some (but not all!) of the foibles of the German grocery store. In Germany, traditionally lunch is the main meal, with dinner and breakfast being bread and cheese or sausage. You eat lunch at work with your colleagues, in the canteen. Justin’s office offers a large, all-you-can-eat buffet (for only 4 Euro!) with vegetarian and meat options and at least three different types of potatoes. Even my small language school has a teeny 5-table canteen, with sandwiches, hot entrees and cake (more about the cake to follow). Dinner, which is often referred to as ‘Abendbrot’ (‘evening bread’), is traditionally bread and wurst, which explains why what seems like half our grocery store is bread and wurst. Every so often I will buy a small packet of salami or ham for myself, but the options are quite dizzying and I usually stick to what I recognize.

Vegetarian options are not as limited as one might think. Many Germans seem to have adopted vegetarian diets as a health choice, and so Justin’s canteen, for example, has an entire vegetarian buffet line – however, I’ve heard from him and his colleagues that it has the same options every day, so it’s a little less helpful than it could be. We are lucky to live by a large (by German standards) grocery store that stocks a wide range of vegetarian proteins. However, many of them are kind of gross faux-sausages that don’t look too appealing. Since Justin eats chicken, faux schnitzel is also a bit unnecessary, but it’s definitely available. Tofu is usually a diet staple for us (I cook a lot of stir fries) but the tofu available in the grocery store is vacuum-packed, probably to increase its shelf-stability, and somehow has kind of a funny smell and taste to it. However, they do have tofu ‘gehacktes’ (‘minced meat’), which makes a pretty good fake Bolognese sauce. In the Asian grocery stores, you can find plenty of normal, water-bath tofu that has the expected taste (or lack thereof), along with curry pastes and all the other spices that seem to so intimidate the Germans. Also common here are ‘bio’ (organic) stores, and those have plenty of vegetarian options (seitan, beans, tempeh). Unfortunately, these stores tend to be kind of expensive.

Baking in Germany is kind of funny. All of the leavening agents (yeast, baking powder, baking soda – if you can find it) and vanilla come in single-serve packets. I assume German baking recipes will call for a packet of baking powder like American recipes call for a stick of butter. Finding these things in bulk (and by ‘bulk’, I mean, ‘containers with more than a teaspoon in them’) was a quest I went on during our first weeks here. First, I went down an Internet rabbit hole where I discovered that German baking powder is ‘single-acting’, while American baking powder is ‘double-acting’. Apparently this difference is less problematic when making something like banana bread, where you mix and put in the oven right away, but can cause problems in cookies that you bake in batches, because the German powder has already exhausted its leavening potential. Anyway, I found some bulk packages of baking powder and baking soda at the Indian grocery store here. I suspect the powder is single-acting, but I am unlikely to make cookies in our balky, teeny oven anytime soon, and it works fine for the cakes and breads I’ve made.

I think baking might be a little uncommon here, since everyone seems to buy a slice of cake at all times. I’ve heard that Britons have the worst sweet tooth in Europe, but Germans must be a close second. Every afternoon coffee break includes a slice of cake, and cafes often display huge cakes on the bar to entice patrons. Even the canteen in my language school always has two large cakes on the ordering counter to tempt the students with. Friday, I was in line at the Backerei to buy some bread for the weekend (bread, pastries and desserts for sale in the supermarket are solely decorative or sold to unsuspecting foreigners) and the two patrons in front of me ordered sweets: a woman got three large slices of cheesecake with strawberry topping, and a man got two large slices of the same cheesecake and added some sort of large nut-coated, frosted coffee cake.

Much like how the baking supplies come in packets, for some reason you can get condiments in toothpaste-style tubes. Mustard, mayonnaise, and ‘remouladen’ (a sort of tartar sauce/remoulade-style mayonnaise-based sauce) are all available in weird little tubes, to squeeze on your sandwiches. They also come in normal containers (well, somewhat normal, the mustard is in fancy, unsealed jars), but sometimes I buy the tubes for the sheer entertainment value. The tube of mayonnaise I bought came with a star tip, perhaps for gussying up your appetizers with shaped dollops of mayo? Anyway, tubes of mustard are a pretty good thing to smuggle back as a souvenir for friends.

This past week, Thursday was Ascension Day, which apparently doubles as Father’s Day or Men’s Day in Germany for reasons no one can seem to fully explain. On sale for Father’s Day in the grocery store we had vodka, large cans of Kölsch beer, and chocolate. This article describes it as “Men’s Day” and explains some shenanigans that went on. We didn’t see anything described in the article, but a friend in Greifswald in far northern Germany said there was clearly some drunken cycling going on in his neck of the woods.

One last bit about eating culture – the bread here comes in a huge variety, so I’ve started tracking the different breads I buy on the sidebar menu (visible if you click on the three-bar equals sign at the top right of the page).

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German Bicycle Nerds

Yesterday, we went on a lovely bike ride from our house down to the local lake (the Baldenysee, which, much like Town Lake in Austin, is actually a river that has been dammed). It was wonderful weather, and the only downside was the clouds of midges you would periodically find yourself biking through. More prepared people had mouth coverings, we made do with spitting out any wayward bugs. I decided an excellent art project would be photographing the expressions people made as they ran or biked through these clouds, since they were pretty funny.

My other entertainment for the ride was pointing out people who appeared to be on sufficiently “serious” mountain bikes and telling Justin he should ask them where the trails are – every time he goes mountain biking, he finds standard German walking trails (which are wide, paved with fine gravel, and not very challenging) as the recommended route. All of my suggested mountain bikers were deemed either “insufficiently serious” or had “weird bikes”. Right now he’s off again hunting for trails, and hopefully has had more success.

We took the train back (since I’m lazy, and the train is absurdly convenient). Usually the front and back cars on the S-Bahn are bike cars, which means they have a section with fold out seats next to a big area you can stick your bike in. An older gentleman was already there, and I leaned my bike up against his. After the train started moving, he asked me something in German, which I did not quite parse. I replied “Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutche, aber mein Mann spricht gut Deutsch.” [Translation: “I speak a little German, but my husband speaks good German.”] He wanted to know why my bicycle did not have caps on the valve stems – so Justin told him it was because we topped it off with air regularly (also, it’s pretty common among US cyclists to get rid of these, but in Germany, apparently not). Then he wanted to know how much my bike cost, where it was purchased. Next, he said it was a nice bicycle, but that the kickstand was cheap-looking. For context, let me explain that the standard German kickstand is a two-sided jobber that looks like it could kickstand the Bismarck. I think the intent is so you can stop your bike and then sit on it, because apparently stopping your bike and stepping over it to sit elsewhere is uncool. We had encountered our first German bike nerd.

This was actually pretty encouraging compared to my German cycling experience earlier in the week. I was bicycling home from my German class, uphill, at a leisurely 4 mph. I was biking on the sidewalk, because that’s where the bike lane on this particular road dumped me about a mile prior, and because this particular sidewalk is about 10 feet wide and usually has no one on it. The road next to it has four lanes, typically heavily trafficked with buses and cars on their way to the autobahn. An old man with a handtruck full of beverages was headed the opposite direction (a genteel 5 feet across the sidewalk), saw me, pointed, shook his finger, and then pointed to the roadway. He did it twice, to ensure I saw. I resisted the urges of my New York upbringing, and did not make a rude gesture, but it was close. Keep in mind, I’ve often seen people cycling down busy shopping streets, and there doesn’t appear to be a consensus as to where bicycles go on streets without a designated bicycle lane.

Anyway, Germany is still full of entertaining complexities – the German customs authority is holding my Kindle for ransom after I left it at a friend’s in the US and he mailed it back to me. I will have to produce a receipt to demonstrate that I’m not trying to smuggle it in to avoid taxes. On the upside, the beer is cheap, the weather is good, and the days are long, and I feel a little less confused when I’m spoken to in German (most of the time).