I love pork. When I found out we’d be moving to Munich, the first thing that popped into my head was the scene from the musical inside the musical The Producers, “Springtime for Hitler,” where a scantily-clad dancer saunters down the stage wearing a 6-foot bratwurst on her head. Heaven. But even someone who eats ham religiously has their faith in the snouted saint tested here. Bavarians go hog wild for pig.
A list of schwein choices from my local grocer: the traditional bratwurst, a no brainer; the more obscure bockwurst, a double-ground sausage the consistency of liverwurst; liverwurst; great rashers of uncut bacon; ham (Black Forest, Honey, and Virginia); hot dogs, from America; and from Italy: capicola, prosciutto, and salami by the kilo. The Italian imports are often wrapped round a proper Bavarian wurst; pig in a meat blanket. There are pork impostors: turkey ham, turkey salami, and turkey bratwurst. Turkey turkey is hard to find. Apparently, the only acceptable use of fowl is to help health-consious Germans to eat more ‘pork’ products. If you have the stomach for it, you even can buy whole young pigs (hooves attached, heads removed) ready for the rotisserie.
The meat counter also holds some truly bizarre selections. You can get strained pork drippings, essentially pork broth, in a sausage casing. It looks and feels like those slippery water toys you had as a kid. They get wet, you squeeze, and schwoompf!, it flies across the room. I’ve never held one of these broth-wursts for more than a few seconds. I’m afraid I’ll drop it; that it will break open and leave me standing in a schwein lake. Last, but certainly not least, Bavaria has created their own delicacy: what Laura and I call “Münchner Fruit Cake.” Picture a tube of salami, about two feet long, with the end cut off, to show off its innards. Suspended in this hog log are….are….glossy bits of I don’t know what. It looks akin to midwestern picnic salad; banana swimming in a sea of orange jello. All that’s missing is the Cool Whip.
I’ve been making a point to try these delectables whenever I have the chance (except the fruit cake, I’m still working up the courage). Last week a friend from America was out visiting, so we took her to Marienplatz to watch the Glockenspiel, and have lunch at a sidewalk cafe. It was 25 degrees (that’s Celsius), so I ordered a beer and something light, Münchner Wurst Salat, clearly a local specialty. I pictured something like a blackened chicken salad, or even a Vietnamese beef salad: a bed of greens, perhaps some red cabbage, with a tasty grilled sausage sitting on top. I should have known. Piled high in the kitchen’s largest mixing bowl were thin slices of cold boiled sausage, gray as a February Seattle sky, topped with raw onions, and a tangy vinegar sauce. There wasn’t a scrap of lettuce anywhere. Münchner heaven. I said a prayer for my arteries and dug in.
And it is, in fact, Münchner heaven. There’s an old German fairy tale called Schlaraffenland, Land of the Lazy. In Schlaraffenland, food brings itself to you. You want fish? Lay down by the river and open your mouth; they’ll jump right in. Geese soar, and chickens run, fully cooked. Pigs, their stint on the spit complete, wander through town with a knife in their back. Whenever you feel peckish, just grab the handle and slice off a snack. Not exactly a balanced diet, but it’s a commoner’s fantasy. When you’re poor and starving, looking at yet another plate of boiled potatoes, the thought of meandering meat might bring you hope enough to make it through the winter. Only the rich can waste their imaginations on Sugar Plum Fairies or Turkish Delight.
When Laura and I first arrived, while still stubbing our toes with alarming regularity, we had a fantasy of finding breakfast sausage. We had visions of pancakes, eggs, and sausage, maybe hash browns; a Denny’s breakfast, complete with coffee and orange juice. We dreamt about it, but we never even tried. It’s morally wrong, staring over mountains of molded pig (in literally dozens of flavors and styles), to ask for Jimmy Dean just to satisfy our unadjusted American palates. It would be an insult to the butcher’s craft–the swinish equivalent of asking the Sommallier of The French Laundry to recommend a White Zinfandel. I could never do that to the poor butcher. Besides, bratwurst for breakfast is a fine substitute.
Pork is the traditional meat of Germany, its everyday food. I’ve never known a traditional diet in America. Perhaps there was one once, before supermarkets, before the interstate, before Kraft. But no more. Now, we eat the world. We have taco night, followed by Chinese take out, spaghetti, and chicken cordon bleu. A week later, it’s tupperware terror as you prepare for Sunday’s grocery trip. How wonderful it would be, I thought, if we did as the rest of the world did? Wouldn’t it be great to be like the French? They bake bread, and if it goes stale, they make onion soup. If Greek milk starts to go off, they make Yogurt, which they can use for another week. Refried beans are probably refried because some Mexican child didn’t want to eat them the night before. There’s a simple beauty to a traditional diet. One meal becomes another. Yesterday’s leavings found tomorrow’s feast.
I don’t mean to imply that Germany doesn’t have supermarkets, interstates, or Kraft. Nor do I believe that the average German spends Saturday night grinding sausages in her kitchen, then rises at five on Sunday morning to bake bread. They buy their meat wrapped in plastic, same as anyone else. But what they buy, and what the markets sell, shows that the love of pork is anything but ancient history. Pork is traditional, and comfortable. People know what it is, and how to use it. They buy it, so that’s what the markets offer. Sometimes that’s all they offer. That’s the problem.
From my lofty perch in America, I thought about how it’d be great to meld one meal into another, eating variations on a theme. It’s cheap, it’s simple, it’s historical. It’s also boring. I’ve eaten so much pork in the last two months that last week, while shopping in a suburban supermarket, I almost dove into the refrigerator case at the sight of ground beef. I listen to Cheeseburger in Paradise a lot. I’ve considered not eating for a week so I can afford to go out for sushi. When Americans were poorer, when more of us lived on farms, we ate what was available, what was cheap, or what we raised (mutton yesterday, mutton today, and probably mutton tomorrow). As incomes rose, we could afford to branch out. Now we’re rich enough to be filthy; rotten cheese in the fridge, taco shells forgotten in the cupboard. Germany is rich too, but their diet hasn’t evolved yet, or at least their meat counters haven’t. Don’t believe me? I finally found my courage, and tried the “Muenchner Fruit Cake.” Those glossy bits suspended in the salami? Ham.