Any attempt to explore another country’s unique culture will invariably lead to an extensive look into its food. One could, conceivably devote an entire blog to the history of German cuisine, the traditions associated with holiday dishes or perhaps even point out that former President John Fitzgerald Kennedy proclaimed himself to be a jelly filled donut on June 26, 1963 while visiting Berlin. There is so much out there, and yet I have reluctantly decided to leave such a daunting task to the other ex-pat bloggers for the two important reasons: 1.) I’m getting rather hungry and could not offer an objective insight into the vast assortment of succulent, savory sausages, cooked to a golden-brown, fresh out of the pain still sizzling with the juices running down the…(sorry, lost my train of thought there) and 2.) I am not entirely sure how to spell most of the foods and my spellchecker is not exactly Deutsch friendly. To that end, I decided to delve into the sub-culture of fast food beginning with my personal favorite: Currywurst.
When I was four years old, I visited my grandfather in Virginia. Most of the memories are a blurry haze involving very large people with very large voices telling me to remove foreign objects from my nose, etc. There is one memory that still rings today with remarkable clarity and that was a trip to McDonalds. I was well aware that I was far from my hometown in Massachusetts. In fact, I estimated my distance to be somewhere between a gazillion and a bajillion miles away. Despite this vast distance, I discovered this McDonalds was exactly the same! From Ronald McDonald to the Hamburgler to that purple looking thing that confused me, all my friends were there to greet me. Suffice it say, I felt right at home when I realized that my cheeseburger and fries tasted exactly the same as the McDonalds in “massatussits. “ This was my first deep understanding into the corporate homogeneity of the fast food industry. As I got older and traveled the world, I observed that a Big Mac in Tokyo tastes pretty much same as a Big Mac in London. The only culture behind fast food seemed to be the culture of commercialism served with heaping spoonful’s of familiarity. My wide eyed astonishment as a child morphed into an apathetic, mind numbing acceptance that this was the nature of the fast food beast.
My first foray into German fast food began with a currywurst stand in Cologne. I had, of course, heard of currywurst. One cannot spend more than a week in Germany without being introduced to a food so ingrained in German culture. With the help of a lovely lady I am proud to now call my wife, I ordered my first serving. I was armed with a tiny plastic fork and as I took my first bite, I came to realization that it has taken me roughly thirty six years to recapture that wide eyed, culinary enthusiasm. Sure, I have had pork sausage before and I have certainly had my share of something similar to this tangy red sauce. I even had the privilege to have tried curry powder a few times in my life. The individual components that make currywurst are nothing spectacular or unique. Yet, clearly this is a food where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
Hello, beautiful. I’ve missed you.
To the casual observer, this may look like ordinary, run of the mill ketchup, but no, part of the charm of currywurst is that unique, “not-quite-ketchup” sauce. Sure, it is ketchup based, but everyone has their own creative spin on what makes a good sauce. A good amount of curry powder is sprinkled on top and if the line of people isn’t too long, a person can be eating within two minutes of placing the order. There is nothing prepackaged and sitting under a heat lamp either. Part of the joy in the currywurst experience is watching it being prepared. It can be served stand-alone, with bread or in my case, with French fries. I felt I experienced Germany on a level as significant as the Cologne Cathedral or the Brandenburg Gate. Before one would dismiss this as hyperbole, the following should be considered:
In a 12 Round Cage Match with Ronald Mcdonald, my money is on this guy.
Currywurst was even the subject of a Novel by Uwe Timm that was later made into a film.
And of course, the bards have sung of this uniquely German food as well.
With a nation divided, this seemingly simple fast food was one of the few common denominators between East and West. When the Berlin wall fell in 1989 and Germany was suddenly a nation reunited, one had a choice between the Western-with-skin or the Eastern-without-skin currywurst. Perhaps currywurst didn’t win the cold war after all, but I would like to think it made it a bit more palatable or as noted food critic Thomas Platt once said, “currywurst was the warm meal of the cold war.”
Germany of course has Mcdonalds, Burger King and KFC, but I will often walk (yes, walk…another blog post begging to be written) that extra half a kilometer for currywurst. No two currywurst stands are quite the same and I have yet to experience any of that dreaded commercialized homogeneity.