I have been on a serious German kick lately. Our eternally blue California skies become speckled with fleecy white clouds and I start thinking stews, and dumplings, and root vegetables. I talk to my sister on Skype over the ululating sirens of the Frankfurt Fire Station #39 located across from their apartment building and I envision big chunks of “rindfleisch” braised for hours, resting on a platter surrounded by glistening carrots and perfectly boiled potatoes. I hear her husband’s hearty laugh or an innocuous remark in German about their impending late dinner, and I see a pot of boiling water with plump balls of dough bouncing around on top.
While Liljana and Thomas are basking in the afterglow of their three-week scuba vacation in the Philippines, lamenting over a barely perceptible weight gain (in her case) or a more substantial one (in his), and planning meals that would enable them to reclaim their svelte, athletic figures, I can barely stop myself from breaking into Marianne Rosenberg’s Schlager while salivating over beef shanks, imagining a pungent horseradish sauce and a kohlrabi puree. It is irrelevant that I have never tasted kohlrabi in my life. At this particular moment the unattractive, tentacled, greenish-white bulbous rhizome is the epitome of heartiness that defines the German cuisine for me.
My first encounter with Germany was in September of 1982, during the luxuriously long summer between high school and college. I spent a month visiting one of my numerous Aunts and Uncles in the small town of Lörrach, close to the French and Swiss borders. During the day, while my little cousins were attending preschool and the adults had to go to work, I roamed the quiet streets, peeked into the store windows, and tried to break out of my shy mode and buy groceries. Some days the babies stayed home and I would watch them, switching my attention from yodeling folk-musicians on ART TV to equally unsatisfying and uninspiring Wild-West romance novels in Serbian supplied by another cousin from Basel, for my reading pleasure.
One of my relatives’ friend was a hostess on the train, and I spent several days as her guest, traveling along the barbed-wire protected East German border all the way north to the island of Sylt in the North Sea. As the train left the solid ground of the European continent and continued on tracks running across the sea, practically hovering above the churning waves, I felt as if I were approaching one of Dante’s inner circles, abandoning any hope of return. The island was a resort, the retreat of the rich and famous, all fur, leather, and precious stones.
And yet, the sandy beaches were deserted. The beach chairs sat facing the icy, gray ocean. I plopped down in one of them and gazed toward the horizon where the world ended in a barely perceptible line separating the sky from the water. I never felt as desperately isolated as in that moment, wrapping my sweater tight around my shoulders, while the wind flung tiny, stinging droplets of the cold North Sea at my cheeks. I felt utterly crushed by the gray sand, gray water, and the gray sky above, unable to detect even the smallest speck of color anywhere around. This was not my Adriatic. I walked back from the beach, passing beautiful women wrapped in soft fur coats, accompanied by equally beautiful men with aristocratic features. The sleek, expensive black sedans coasted along the main street. Waiters dressed in crisp, white shirts floated around smooth, bare shoulders and elegant hands holding glasses of Dom Perignon, while the guttural laughs of the satisfied and inebriated elite reverberated along the sidewalks.
I held my breath until I reached the small, nondescript building where the train crew slept. I was ready to throw myself into my bed, but as I approached, the smell of roasted meat and cabbage melted the shard of ice in my heart. And just like Kai in Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Snow Queen, I woke up. As I walked toward the crowd gathering around a simmering pot of red cabbage, I felt at home. For a moment I forgot that I am on a tiny island at the edge of the world. I found solace in the flushed cheeks surrounding me. I joined the line of people piling their plates with steaming heaps of soft, flavorful cabbage and juicy roast with crispy skin. Somewhere in the corner, a TV came alive broadcasting Marianne Rosenberg’s newest hit.
I sat on the couch against the wall as the gray slowly dissipated, overtaken by the golden brown skin of the roast, the liquid amber in the steins of beer covered with a foam thicker than the sea’s, the rosy pink in the cheeks of people celebrating another ordinary day in their lives, and the vibrant purple of the steaming cabbage in the middle of my plate.
The next day the train tracked back to the continent, along the barbed-wire protected East German border, all the way to Basel. We returned just as Oktoberfest was starting. My parents drove to collect me and we spent several days gorging ourselves on juicy bratwursts covered with pungent grainy mustards, chickens roasted on spits in tiny kiosks, potato dumplings, spaetzle, and copious amounts of beer from huge mugs carried with confidence and expertise by buxom blonde women in dirndl dresses. But every plate I ate had to contain a small dollop of “rotkraut”, sweet, sour, enriched with bacon, glistening like an amethyst, a veritable beacon always leading home.
- 150gr (5-6oz) bacon, cut into smaller pieces
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 Tbsp sugar
- 1 tart apple, peeled, cored and chopped
- 1 head of red cabbage, shredded
- ⅓ cup red wine vinegar
- ⅓ cup red wine
- 1 cup chicken broth
- salt, freshly ground pepper
- Heat the large skillet or a stainless steel pot over medium temperature and add bacon.
- Fry until crisp.
- Add the onions and sugar and stir until onions soften.
- Add the apple and saute for another 5 minutes.
- Add the rest of the ingredients and heat to boil.
- Turn the temperature to medium-low to low, cover and simmer for 1 hour.
- Taste and adjust the seasonings.