German Cooking

GERMAN COOKING Through the Hands of My Ancesters
By Agnes Schettenhelm Dikeman

Some time ago, I was asked to write an article about German cooking. I was quick to point out that I am most certainly not an expert in that area. That having been said, I was encouraged to write whatever I could recall from my German-American childhood so I promised to do the best that I could do. The following article appeared in Repast, the quarterly newsletter of the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor, Randy Swartz, editor.

With this piece, I will attempt to show that frugalness and self-sufficiency play an important role in the foods that appear on the family table. Food has always been a major part of German culture. Even today, visitors to Germany come back to America talking about the food! In this country, too, food is a very important component of the social culture of all families, but especially of German-American families.

Germany is a small country, fewer than 150,000 sq. miles in area. The country's history includes Germanic tribes that displaced the Celts as early as the 2nd century B.C. Until unification in 1990, Germany was involved in one embattlement after another. It is safe to assume that during each trying time, food was scarce and housewives "made do" with what they had.

Is being frugal a characteristic of German temperament or is it born out of necessity? I believe it is a combination of the two. When generation after generation grows up with hardship and little on the table, frugalness becomes a way of life. In the 1860s, my own paternal ancestors were peasants who ran a little store and farmed a small plot of land outside the Village of Wiesbaden in the province of Hessen. Because crops had failed for several consecutive years, farmers became destitute, the family store failed, creditors took over, and my ancestors lost everything.

On the maternal side of the family, my mother was born in 1905. She lived through World War I as a teenager in a small village of Obertsrot, in the area known as Germany's Black Forest. Her family of eight was poor, as Grandfather was a common laborer. Typically, each family had a small piece of land where they subsisted by raising vegetables and fruit for the family. During war years, there was little on the table each evening. Mother said the children never had meat to eat during the war. If there was any meat to be had at all, it would only be a small piece and Grandmother gave it to Grandfather to eat because he had to remain strong. Growing up that way made one frugal.

Mother emigrated to America in the mid-1920s. My father was a first generation German-American. This story is about the foods we ate in our home when I was a child on a Michigan farm in the 1930s and 1940s. I will attempt to show that by nature, Germans are often very frugal regarding the foods they prepare. Then, I'll talk about German-American cooking during the Great Depression Years, as we demonstrate for visitors at the Rentschler Farm Museum in Saline, Michigan.

Coming to America in 1925, Mother was in the Detroit area only a few years before the Great Depression hit. By that time, she had married my father and they lived on a farm that belonged to my paternal grandparents. Once again, frugalness was the order of the day, but Mother always said farm families were better off than city dwellers because here, in America, farm families could be self sufficient if they used what they had wisely.

During World War II, Mother managed to keep my father, four children, her brother-in-law, and the farm help fed even though she had to juggle rationing constraints. So how did she do that and what did she cook? Although I think Mother was a good cook, she did not cook anything fancy. After eighth grade, Mother had gone to what she called "finishing school" in Germany and when she came to Detroit, she worked for well-to-do families as a maid. Because of that experience, she developed a liking for nice things that carried over into her own household. Her table was always set with the silverware placed just so and perfectly ironed napkins. A visually pleasing meal made up for anything that was otherwise lacking. Food dishes were tastily prepared and nicely served but weren't anything remotely resembling gourmet cooking!

We preserved everything the farm produced because Mother did not believe in buying fresh fruits or vegetables from the store. She considered that wasteful "when God gave us all these things on the farm". Without exaggeration, we started each winter season with well over 125 quarts of applesauce in our fruit cellar and we were never allowed to open a freshly canned jar if there were quarts left from the previous year. We also canned cherries, peaches, pears, beans and tomatoes, dill pickles and sweet pickles; jams and jellies made from raspberries, black currants, crabapples, and strawberries.

A special canning project was to gather green tomatoes from the garden, grind them with apples, and an orange. To this, raisins and delicious spices were added, then cooked slowly with suet for at least two hours and then canned. This was the makings of Green Tomato Mincemeat. Many think Mincemeat Pie is British in origin, but it was Prince Albert of Germany who introduced the idea to England when he married Queen Victoria. The American practice of using green tomatoes in place of meat is an example of German-American frugalness.

Our bread was dark and richly flavored pumpernickel, rye, or whole wheat. Though we children craved the white bread our schoolmates had in their lunches, we seldom had white bread. We breakfasted on hot oatmeal and toast with butter and jam or coffeecake with cinnamon and sugar.

Dinner was always in the middle of the day at noon sharp! One of my chores was to ring the big dinner bell. The men had been working outside since early morning and they were hungry! Mother prided herself on learning to cook American dishes, but we often had the old standbys: roast chicken with bread dressing, roast pork or veal, liver and onions. Cows could only be sacrificed for meat once they stopped producing milk. Therefore, we seldom had beef on the table. Sometimes Mother stewed an old chicken that was no longer laying eggs. She used the broth to make delicious chicken noodle soup or chicken and dumplings.

For religious reasons back in those days, we did not eat meat on Fridays, so vegetable soup and potato pancakes or applesauce over noodles topped with melted butter and dried toast cubes was the order of the day. Fresh or cooked vegetables from our large garden were served plain, with salt and pepper and perhaps a bit of butter: boiled or mashed potatoes with gravy, carrots, turnips, cabbage slaw, leaf lettuce with vinegar and oil, pickled beets, and squash. Nothing but salt, pepper and a little butter was added to vegetables – no cream or cheese sauces of any kind.

Occasionally, we had a salad. When dandelion greens or fresh lettuce and tomatoes were in the garden, Mother made a simple dressing of vinegar, oil and sugar or mayonnaise mixed with sugar. Aside from that, we helped ourselves to individual large pieces of fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, which we added to our dinner plate. We always added a piece of lettuce to a sandwich, but salads were not common practice. Well into the 1950s, my parents had many German friends to whose homes we were invited for Sunday dinner. I do not remember ever having a salad at anyone's home.

Supper at 6:00 sharp consisted of warmed leftovers or salami sandwiches, knackwurst and sauerkraut, or pork sausage and fried eggs. Germans love smoked bacon and sausages of all kinds but are partial to salami, pork sausage, knackwurst, and hotdogs. The adults relished pickled herring, sardines, limburger cheese with a slice of onion, and such. We children did everything we could to avoid having to eat such things.

Each late fall, we butchered a hog which had been "stuck in the jugular vein" and quickly bled. The blood was captured in a large enamel dish pan, taken into the house while still warm, mixed with copious amounts of sage and other spices, salt, pepper and rice. Pork scraps were cooked and ground prior to adding them to the blood mixture. This was put into casings, cooked in water, cooled and lightly smoked. It made the most wonderful sausage when fried and served with fried potatoes. I can still taste it. Mother was very particular about what went into blutwurst (blood sausage). She would never buy any from a butcher shop; she said she wanted to know what went into it!

We did buy head cheese from a family friend who was a butcher by trade. For this, the meat scraps were cured in salt brine, and then cooked in a little water. After grinding or mincing, many spices were added with the natural gelatin and cooking stock. It was placed in a mold in ice water and then refrigerated. We children avoided eating this wiggly stuff that contained "floating things" (actually, the dried spices), but adults loved it with buttered rye bread and coffee.

For a snack that could be carried in one's pocket out in the field, there was smoked and dried landj'ger (literally, hunter's sausage). It was similar to, but much better than, toda's beef sticks.

And, we always had desserts: it might only have been a dish of canned fruit, but sometimes it was stollen, (a dry, fruity coffeecake), springerle (a cookie imprinted with a picture, hard on the outside, soft on the inside) or lebkuchen (a bar cookie of honey, molasses and dried fruit), or a simple apfelkuchen (apple cake). A handful of walnuts and apfelschnitz (dried apple slices) was another treat.

Mother's sister Rosa lived in a farming community in New York State. As a 5-year old, I remember being at her house when she was making springerle. It's a 2-day job to prepare the dough, chill it, and roll out the cookies with a special rolling pin that has pictures carved into it. After that, the cookies had to rest overnight in a cool place. She placed them on cookie sheets stacked on a table, just inside the doorway that led to the upstairs bedrooms where we children slept. It took a lot of will power to walk past the butter, egg, and anise aroma on the way to bed! We knew if we snitched one, we would be in trouble.

Another task I recall her doing was slicing and slowly drying a few apples on a rack at the back of her woodstove. Day after day, she turned the slices and added a few more. Those that were sufficiently dried went into a clean white cotton flour bag. She started in the early fall as soon as apples came in. By Christmas, she had BAGS of appleschnitz in a cold upstairs room.

When I was a child, I always looked forward to our family's Christmas package that came from Burlington Flats, NY. We could depend on Aunt Rosa to send springerle and appleschnitz. Oh my, I could smell the treats through the wrappings! This was a BIG box of several dozen cookies and a large white cotton flour sack about half filled with the dried apples. We probably ate the springerle shortly after receiving them, but the bag of apples (minus a few handfuls) was taken up the long stairway and tied to the attic clothesline. Periodically, Mother would bring a few apple slices downstairs for snacking. Technically, drying the apples was a way to preserve them for baking, though they had to be reconstituted before using them in a pie. However in our house, they never lasted long enough to go into a pie!

At Saline's Rentschler Farm Museum where I am a volunteer, we interpret the farmhouse as a family might have had it during the Depression Era of the 1930s. An important component of our historical society's mission is to show visitors how German-American farm families lived at that time. Special Events at the museum call for cooking on the old gas stove, a 1930s Hostess model made by the Detroit Stove Works. It is a thrill to cook on it. Our goal is to show how the farmwife could put a substantial meal on the table for her family, even though times were hard during the Depression. And we also show that delicious German-American desserts could satisfy family and friends when made from ingredients found on the farm. Our efforts exemplify that farm families were both self-sufficient and frugal.

Oftentimes, I make bean soup so the aroma permeates the house when visitors walk through the front door. It's also easy to keep up a running commentary with visitors while cooking Sweet and Sour Red Cabbage or Hot German Potato Salad. The oven is unreliable but if watched carefully, we can turn out a beautifully roasted chicken, biscuits, or even a pie or two.
Occasionally, one of our good museum friends demonstrates how pork sausage is made. Out comes the big cutting board, where his daughter cuts pork into chunks prior to grinding. Then, he attaches the very large hand-cranked meat grinder to the table. Salt, pepper, sage and perhaps a little ginger and nutmeg are worked in. The sausage stuffer gently forces the ground meat into natural casings and like magic, we have pork sausage for breakfast! It smells delicious cooking in the large cast iron frying pan.

When making sauerkraut at the farm, I need at least 10 pounds of fresh, firm cabbage from the garden. After washing, removing outer leaves, coring and quartering, the cabbage is shredded into a large crock. At the museum, we have a very fine shredder that belonged to one of our German farm families. The salting process is done gradually and the cabbage is tamped every layer or so to get rid of trapped air and to start the juices flowing. When finished, the whole thing is covered with a sterile cloth and weighted down with a plate and a stone. I hold the crock at 68° - 72°F to complete the fermentation. In heated basements of today, it is difficult if not impossible, to keep sauerkraut indefinitely so I follow accepted procedures for canning.

To conclude, it is important to note that German foods and recipes differ from region to region and from family to family. It is also important to consider that when German persons married spouses of another ethnic background, food preferences and dishes changed. Whether my background is typical of German-American families in general, that is up to the reader's opinion. It seems to me, however, that German food recipes and specific foods enjoyed by Germans are as numerous and different as there are persons in the kitchen.

Copyright :… 2007 Agnes Dikeman