Friday, April 12, 2019

Germany for Vegetarians

I’m not sure if my boyfriend understands vegetarians. There aren’t many in Germany so it’s possible word hasn’t gotten out. In America every restaurant has a vegetarian option, so we can go out to eat anywhere, but with vegetarian food -- along with fashion, capitalism, and smizing -- Germany is a few years behind. You have to call a restaurant in advance and ask, "Do you have any vegetables there?"

Dieter had to go to a small German town for business, so I tagged along. Because he was so busy we ate in the hotel restaurant every night. Every entree on the menu had meat in it. The first night I was horrified to eat beef, the second night I was disgusted to eat pork, and on the third night I was fed up.

The menu listed something called "fleisch salad,“ so I desperately leapt at it. The word "fleisch," of course, meant there'd be meat in it, but I figured I could push it to the side and just eat the salad. When the waiter dropped it off, though, I discovered it's the "potato salad“ style of salad. You chop up a pile of something, add a gallon of mayonnaise, and ta-dah! "Salad" is done.

I took exactly one bite before turning to the parsley garnish. "You don't like it?" Dieter asked.

If there's anything I hate, it's being needy. I pride myself on being low-maintenance, but then what was I doing here? I felt guilty. We’d gone to a place that served salad and I STILL wasn’t happy. "I didn’t think it would be so meaty,“ I replied.

He looked at me the way you’d look at somebody who ordered potato salad but didn’t want potatoes. "You can take out the meat and just eat the mayonnaise,“ he suggested.

"Oh," I said, but I didn't eat it. I got a piece of cake.

The next time we discussed dining options I made the situation clear. "Anywhere is fine,“ I said. "Except I don’t eat meat. I. Don’t. Eat. Meat.“

"I know just the place,“ he said. With excitement and anticipation we drove a few miles, and then he pulled up in front of a cake shop.

"Okay," I said, "this is technically vegetarian, but I have some dietary needs that aren't met by cake."

"I thought you liked cake. Every time we eat out you get a piece of cake."

"Because I don't want to die of starvation in the center of Berlin."

Just in case I wasn't clear, I repeated these instructions the next time we went out for dinner. "No meat," I said, "but also no cake. Can we go to a restaurant that has meat-free dishes but something other than cake?“ He drove to another little cafe, we got a table, inspected menus, and I searched every line in vain.

"There’s something in here that isn’t meat or cake?“ I asked.

My boyfriend proudly jabbed a finger at a page. "Waffles!“ he announced.

After another cake dinner -- waffles say "breakfast" to me -- I figured I had to do something drastic. Surely I'd be better off eating fleisch than shaking like maracas from low blood sugar. The next time my boyfriend and I went out for dinner I had the word "huhn“ — chicken — memorized. I flipped through the menu, came up blank, and when the waiter appeared I asked, "Haben sie etwas huhn?“ ("Do you have any chicken?“)

He and my boyfriend had a nice chuckle. "‘Huhn‘ is an animal,“ my boyfriend explained. "‘Hähnchen‘ is food.“

Oh, I thought. That’s nice. Something else about Germany that’s inexplicably difficult. In English it’s simple. "Look, there’s a chicken!“ "There’s a whole field of chickens.“ "Look, there’s a chicken eating chicken!“ But in Germany the name changes when something is dead.

The waiter said something and my boyfriend turned to me. "It doesn’t matter,“ he said. "They don’t have any.“ I ordered my usual cake and when the waiter left I asked my boyfriend to explain.

"‘Hähnchen’ is food,“ he repeated. "It is not an animal. A female chicken is a huhn. Two female chickens are hühner. One male chicken is a hahn, two male chickens are hähne.“

"Okay,“ I said. "I got it.“ And then a minute later. "Could you run through those again?“

I’m not sure if it’s the language or my boyfriend, but it seemed like the words were different this time around. They were very similar, but with slight differences in spelling and pronunciation. Some meant animals, some meant food, some meant boys, some meant girls. As the words swirled around in my head I pictured a scene at a butcher shop:

"Four hundred grams of hahn,“ I’d say to the clerk.

He’d shoot me the curious look I’d gotten from everybody else in Germany. "Do you mean ‘huhn?‘“ he’d ask.

Honestly, what could I reply here? Once again I’d have to abandon my feeble German and fall back into English. "Look,“ I’d say, "I want some chicken. What its genitals look like are completely up to you.“

So, maybe I was delirious from starvation when I saw the mirage. It seemed almost real: in front of a hardware store there was a stand selling vegetable soup. I saw a folding table, folding chairs, and a kind of makeshift kitchen with a big grill holding two giant kettles. I even thought I smelled the soup.

I looked at Dieter. He looked at me. "Do you want soup?“ he asked.

I ran like a starving rat. In America I might have balked if anybody asked me, "Would you like to have lunch at the hardware store?“ But this was Germany. "Absolutely,‘ I said.

This exchange shows exactly how far I’d fallen. If I’d announced in New York that I wanted hardware-store soup any sensible boyfriend would have said, "Sweetie, are you sure? At a hardware store?“ Or even, "Honey, there are people we can talk to about this.“ But my German boyfriend had no problem with it. "It is probably delicious," he said. "The sign says it’s grandma’s recipe.“

That clinched it. Dieter spoke with the chef behind the counter, then translated for me. "What kind of soup would you like: lentil or pea?“ he asked.

"Definitely split pea,“ I said.

Dieter's forehead furrowed. "It is pea soup. It is made from whole peas.“

That made two of us who were confused. "Can you even do that?" I wondered. It's called split pea soup. Why they split them, I don't know -- I just know it's split pea soup. "They’re whole peas?" I asked. "They’re not cut in half?“

He spoke for a minute to the chef in German and now he was confused too. "They are whole peas,“ Dieter confirmed.

"Oh,“ I said. This was an unexpected quandary, but after a second I realized it didn’t make any difference. "I’ll have the pea soup.“

"Wait,“ Dieter said. "They cut peas in half in America?“

I shrugged my shoulders. "Always,“ I said.

“Do you buy them from the store cut in half, or do you do it after you get home?“

Another man walked up and looked like he wanted to order but the chef said something to him in German and suddenly I was talking to a crowd. "In America you buy a bag of dried peas and they are already cut in half. I assume it has something to do with them cooking faster. It’s like cutting a squash in half.“

Dieter summarized my words to the assembled multitude and now they looked even more confused than ever. "It takes fifteen minutes to cook a whole pea," the chef said. Everybody in Germany speaks English: you just have to get them really annoyed before they'll start. "Americans would rather cut two hundred peas in half than wait for fifteen minutes?“

Newcomer thought that standing there gave him the right to cut in. Germans are a friendly bunch. "So someone cuts the peas in half?" he asked. "Someone with a knife?“

I didn't have a clue, but the knife seemed so stupid I couldn't let it go. "No,“ I said. "It’s done by machine.“

There was a short conference, and then the three men laughed. "So," Dieter said, "because fifteen minutes is too long to wait, someone built a machine that cuts peas in half?"

When laughing resumed, that was it for me. Split peas are the correct peas, as far as I’m concerned, even if some goddamned old lady with a wire loop has to sit in a warehouse and garrote the fuckers in half. I wasn't going to put up with any more of this America-bashing, particularly in the country with the worst food in the world.

Naturally, thinking about lousy food made me think about currywurst. It sounds great. It looks terrific. But fork over your money with fingers crossed and ... it's the culinary equivalent of a Tim Burton film.

I'd heard so much hype in America about currywurst that after I got here I stopped by a stand to see what was up. A man grabbed a grilled sausage and stuck it in a machine. When he turned a crank, the machine sucked in the sausage and spat out chunks. He squirted catsup on the chunks and sprinkled curry powder on top.

I stared at it, thinking it had to be wrong. I watched the process repeat. Curry sauce, I discovered, is just catsup with curry powder. Bottled catsup, which has so much fructose it's actually closer to candy than food. And even worse: Germans are too lazy to cut up a sausage?

I looked at the soup crowd and knew my argument. "You know how currywurst is a cut-up sausage with catsup and curry powder on it? How does the sausage get cut up? Is it done by a guy with a knife? No. Somebody sticks a sausage in a machine, turns the crank, and it spits out sausage chunks.“

Dieter exchanged looks with the others, who shrugged and nodded. "A machine,“ I repeated. "Germans actually built something out of metal because it’s too tough to go chop-chop-chop.“

The crowd hemmed and hawed and visually deflated. Gone was the arrogance, replaced by sheepish looks. "You’re saying Americans are strange for cutting peas in half," I continued, "but you need heavy machinery to cut a sausage into chunks.“

That was it; the crowd was defeated. Nobody said a word. The chef finally picked up a bowl, filled it, and brought me my soup. He still feigned attitude. "Whole peas!“ he told me. "I didn’t cut them in half!“ There was a laugh, but half-hearted.

As much as it annoyed me to admit it, the soup was delicious. It was thick and rich and salty and sweet and -- meaty, I hate to say. It had that hint of smoky sausage that’s in every German food except cake. I wasn't going to admit it but the peas were better for being more substantial.

All eyes turned to me. "It's good," I announced. Everybody smiled. I was happy too. If it's possible, I think Germany has made me even more low-maintenance. Now I'm fine with fleisch. I'm fine with humiliation. In fact, I'm fine with just about anything, as long as I don't have to ask whether it has a penis or not.

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