Ask an Austrian about the Germans and she’ll offer one of the following complaints:
- They take themselves too seriously
- Their accent sounds unpleasant
- They don’t know food
The first two points are complex and contain within themselves a preponderance of points and counterpoints, experiences and studies, pages and pages of anthropological and linguistic scholarship.
I have my own half-baked, anecdote-fueled thoughts about the first two bullets and will gladly spell them out for you if you ask me, but I’d like to dedicate the space of this essay to the third point, which in its own right is not simple and deserves serious examination.
“The Germans don’t know food.” Let’s start by acknowledging the gravity of this claim and, for the sake of bias recognition, admit that the claim fits coherently within a certain stereotype of the Germans: efficient, orderly, functional. The mold casts gearheads, not gourmands.
To dismiss the culinary capabilities of an entire nation is to grossly oversimplify a country’s food culture. This happens to the United States in Europe all the time. “There’s no good food in the U.S.” more or less means the equivalent of “I don’t like McDonalds” and completely overlooks brisket and burritos, crab cakes and casseroles—the regional specialties that make up the national cuisine. Perhaps German cuisine doesn’t contain the multitudes that you’ll find across the United States of America, but you have sauerbraten and spätzle in the South and herring in Hamburg. One could spend a month eating exclusively at Bavarian Brauhäuser, ordering classics of the daily menus put out by Dirndl-donning Gastfrauen, and become convinced of the pedigree of German cooking.
Ask an Austrian how she knows that the Germans don’t know food, and she’ll tell you one thing: “They pour sauce over schnitzel.” This is an affront to In Austria, where Wiener Schnitzels are judged on the thinness and crispiness of their breadcrumb coating. Thus, dousing your schnitzel in gravy is a gastronomical shot in the foot, tantamount to putting ice cream in the oven.
About a year and a half ago I moved to Cologne, Germany’s fourth biggest city situated on the Rhein river. I spent the first couple of months staying in Christoph’s apartment. Christoph is an Austrian friend whom I had met in a few years prior. No sooner had we greeted each other than did he forewarn me, pupils dilating in despair, of German penchant for schnitzel sacrilege.
Sure enough, eighteen months here have confirmed that the Rheinländer—I won’t try to speak for the whole country, but I fear it’s true—have a proclivity to desecrate one of Austria’s national dishes with a number of offenses. Cologne, in fact, is home to a famous schnitzel restaurant that boasts over fifteen kinds of schnitzel, including Schnitzel Hawaii—breaded pork covered in pineapple and melted cheese. Perhaps the Austrians have a point.
A few weeks after arriving in Cologne, Christoph and I went to a corner restaurant just down the street from his flat. There were tall bottles of wine—Austrian wine—in the windows and silhouettes of deer—one of Austria’s beloved animals—sketched on the walls. When Iris, the cheery dirndl-donning Gastfrau and owner of the restaurant, came out from behind the bar to say hello, she greeted us with a lilted “Servus” and a kiss on each cheek. When she served us our schnitzels, paper-thin and contoured in crispy breaded waves, I could have sworn I saw Christoph’s pupils protracting.
Iris is from Steiermark, a southeastern region of Austria which proudly calls itself the country’s green heart. She moved her for her husband years ago and has run an Austrian restaurant in Cologne ever since. She’s made a name for herself among exiled Austrians and even built up a loyal following of locals. At the end of the dinner Christoph and I thanked her for the meal and asked her what she thought of German food culture.
“There’s great food here,” she said. “But for schnitzel, you have to ask an Austrian.”