DESPITE THE RECENT reunification of Germany, a revolution of taste marches on.
Dinner tables in what used to be East Germany are slowly becoming laden with the rich foods West Germans enjoyed for years. Due to government regulations, East Germans went without luxury foods since World War II. Items such as butter, cream, beef, chocolate and coffee were always scarce. The small amount of dairy products and livestock East German farmers produced were mostly exported to other Iron Curtain countries. Now, with the wall down, East Germans may shop at grocery stores in Berlin and in the West for the foods of their dreams.
The old days of East Germany, for all their hardships, illustrate the practical nature of German cooks. The stories recounted by German immigrants now living in Baltimore recall ingenuity, adventure, and memorable tastes.
Edith Hagen, 64, left East Berlin in 1946, at war's end.
"Right after the war we didn't have anything, so we used potatpeelings to make potato soup," remembers Hagen. "You find all kinds of things to take the place of things you'd like to have." She remembers potato pancakes, red cabbage, and lentil and bean soups were also popular.
Hagen returned to visit relatives in East Germany in the 1970s pTC and '80s, and was shocked to see food shortages still were widespread.
"Wherever you went, you saw lines [for food]. I once stood in line for two pork chops, and I asked the butcher whether it was worth it, if he would still have pork for me. He said sure. But by the time I got there, there were no more," remembers Hagen. Pork was more widely available than beef, chicken or veal, but luxury cuts were scarce; pig's feet and hocks were often used in place of the much loved pork loin.
"If you went to the market, whatever they got in on a particular day is what you used," says Hagen. "I paid 80 cents for one egg. I stood in line for everything."
Hagen also went to Intershop, a luxurious food store in East Berlin open only to foreign tourists and West Germans using non-East German money. There she bought small cans of milk, chocolate and fresh fruit to bring to her family.
Surprisingly, restaurant meals were cheap for visitors to East Germany in the old days. "While the wall was up, food was cheaper. In a restaurant, you could get a complete meal for $3 instead of $10 in the West," recalls Hagen.
Erika Schulze, a friend of the same age, left West Berlin in th1950s. She settled in Baltimore but has gone back to visit East German relatives.
"I believe there are no [differences] between East and West German cooking; we all cook the same way on top of the stove, instead of inside the oven like Americans," says Schulze.
"Whenever I could, I sent my family packages from the West with coffee, tea and other things. But my brother wrote back and said he didn't want to hurt my feelings but it cost him so much in duties it was not even worth it to send the packages," says Schulze.
"They told me, we get enough so we are not hungry, but it's just not quality," says Schulze.
Schulze's late brother loved to garden and rented a tiny plot of land from the East German government to grow vegetables for his own use. He grew the tender white asparagus that is a European delicacy, and gave Schulze a box of the freshly-cut vegetables as a going-away present and thank you for all her food gifts over the years. Unfortunately, the asparagus was confiscated by guards at the border.
"My brother could not give it as a present, he could not even say thank you," she remembers sadly.
Perhaps the crowning glory of German cuisine is the torte, aelegant cake rich with butter and mounded with whipped cream. Schulze says East Germans made do by baking simpler cakes using margarine instead of butter, and using fresh, locally grown fruit such as strawberries or imported cherries from Poland. But if someone was lucky enough to come into some cocoa, a special cake would be made.
"If you had good cocoa and a good housewife, you could make a nice cake," says Schulze.
Here are some German-inspired recipes from American cookbooks appropriate for a traditional East German meal.
Potato Skin Soup
The peelings from 2 pounds of potatoes (put peeled potatoes in cold water and reserve for some other use)
1 onion, chopped
4 tablespoons butter
4 cups stock made from chicken or beef bones, or bouillon cubes
Light cream if necessary
Parsley or chives to garnish.
Wash potatoes carefully and peel, not too thinly.
Cook chopped onion and potato skins in butter until the onion and peel are tender. Add stock, bring to a boil.
Remove soup from stove and blend on high speed.
Reheat soup, adding light cream if it is too thick. Serve sprinkled with chopped chives or parsley. On special occasions, try a teaspoon of chopped walnuts sprinkled over soup instead of the parsley or chives.
-- "The Potato Cookbook" by
Gwen Robyns; Stemmer House
Publishers -- 1976
German Fried Potatoes
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 cups thinly sliced raw potatoes
1 large onion, sliced
1 teaspoon salt