A Culinary Map Of Germany

September 30, 1990|By Jean Thompson

Ten years ago, Horst Scharfenberg drew a map of Germany without modern political boundaries. The host of a long-running television cooking show in West Germany plotted the historical culinary regions instead, ignoring East and West, charting contributions far beyond the spaetzles, beer, potatoes and wurst familiar to most Americans.

Except for the portions of the map that extend into what is now Poland, the coming reunification will make Germany resemble Mr. Scharfenberg's map more than he could ever have imagined. Reached at his home in Baden-Baden last week, the cookbook author chuckled about the timely release in the United States during the last 10 months of a translation of his 1980 volume.

"If I were to write it today, I would write the same book, the same recipes," he says.

Despite his map's depiction of one without the other, politics and gastronomy have always been bedfellows, he says. His 40-year collection of recipes from historical sources and German families' handwritten diaries is spiked with humor and generous helpings of history, documenting the influence of conquerors of various eras on the cuisine. The version released by Simon and Schuster only barely alludes to the modern-day circumstances that have fostered world-renowned cuisine in resorts in the West and government-controlled supplies in the East. But he notes in the introduction, "There has hardly been a single generation of Germans within the last 500 years that hasn't experienced hunger."

He adds over the phone that throughout history, American, French and other European cooking innovations have influenced not only what many Germans eat, but how they view their native foods. The dismantling of the Berlin Wall brought into view the chasm of the East and West's differences and the challenges of making one country of distant neighbors. It also figuratively lifted the top off the breadbasket to allow East Germans a peek at all things good, bad, ugly and expensive about capitalist food.

A barrage of novelties greeted the newcomers. "People didn't like any more their own products, their own food. They bought things from the West," he says. In agrarian areas around Berlin, while tomatoes ripened on the vines, city shoppers who could would spend their money on tomatoes from the Netherlands, he says.

"They were all alike, beautiful and red, but having no taste." Why did they sell? "Everything coming from the West was supposed to be better," he sighs.

He's seen other signs of the "westernization" of tastes: His daughter visited his childhood hometown in Thuringia in East Germany, he says. "I always told them how, as a boy, I had indulged in buying a bratwurst in the street. They sold them from carts." His daughter found a stall for locally produced bratwurst closed; she also saw a man selling a West German variety, he says.

Mr. Scharfenberg, who has a home in Stuart, Fla., points out that small burgs of America used to look to the metropolises for "the best" in foods. Now small-town cooking -- Southwestern, Midwestern Amish, Southern Delta foods -- are all the rage.

"I just finished a book about American food," he says. "I told the German public that it's the renaissance of regional cooking. People are going to go back to their roots and their own products. I could bet all my fortune on it -- the same will happen in Germany. But for now, I guess people will be eating a precooked meal prepared by a fast-food restaurant."

The geographic region our generation has known as the German Democratic Republic cradles the culinary birthplace of many German dishes: buttery fruit tarts; the pastry called stollen; wild mushroom sautes; sausages spiced with marjoram, caraway and coriander. His cookbook assigns to the Berlin environs the roots of an elegant fare -- regional dishes like fricasseed chicken; eel soup; pork chops in aspic; as well as many lunch-counter foods like meat patties, bratwurst in beer sauce and Shrovetide pancakes. Along the Baltic Sea, fruit relishes and preserves were specialties, and the gourmets once boasted fine preparations of game, geese, Baltic Sea fish and crayfish.

In the region we've known as West Germany, many cabbage, beef, bread and freshwater fish dishes evolved, as well as haute cuisines influenced by Italian, French and Swiss chefs.

Many of the rich Old World recipes were born of ingenuity that comes with limited resources, he says. Sauerbraten, a marinated beef concoction familiar to Baltimoreans from the menus of annual church suppers, was one such dish.

"The original point of the marinade, of course, was to make the dish stay fresh longer, though nowadays we're more concerned with the taste," he writes in "The Cuisines of Germany" (Poseidon Press, $24.95). "Sophisticated shoppers need hardly be told that the sauerbraten . . . normally starts out with beef that is very tough indeed."

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