Tough Cows and Tougher Bread: Growing Up German in America
By Rudy Linke
When I was young, I had no idea the food my mom fed us was not what every American ate. We had rouladen, rotkohl, and, of course, more schnitzel than you could shake a wurst at. Growing up in a German household while wanting desperately to fit in as an all-American boy presented me with challenges.
During the summer, we could play outside after dinner until the streetlights came on. Neighborhood friends would come to our front screen door and shout, “Can you come out and play?”
“I have to finish dinner first,” I’d shout back from our kitchen.
“What you having?”
“Is that, like, food or something?”
Eating nothing but German cooking gave me a limited understanding of what real Americans ate. I remember going over to a friend’s house and experiencing some of the most exotic food I had ever sampled, foreign delicacies like meat loaf, mac and cheese, and French fries. I brought home news of these exotic delights only to have my mom serve the German version of mac and cheese, Käsespätzle (“Spätzle and Cheese”).
There were other categories of food I never experienced, like American desserts. My mom worked at a German pastry shop, and so I grew up on exquisite German cakes and pastries. Sure, that included the famous Bavarian chocolate cake, but also an endless stream of cakes made with fresh fruit, butter cream, and other decadent ingredients. These treats were made by actual bakers and pastry chefs, with names like Horst and Gunther. As delicious as these desserts were, to me they were too familiar.
One time I visited a friend and was introduced to the decidedly-American blueberry pie, and my head nearly exploded. What was this gooey goodness? Other Europeans may look down their nose at the American pie, but not me!
Americans don’t usually know most German foods and I think that’s because you can’t find any fast food German restaurants in the US. There is no Schnitzel Koenig featuring brown gravy slushies, or a Hasenpfeffer House famous for their generous sides of dumplings awash in brown gravy. Nor can you find a German drive-thru where you can pick up blood-sausage nuggets with a side of pickled herring. Maybe that’s because people wouldn’t drive thru, they’d drive past.
On Sunday evenings, most Germans would have a light dinner, usually a platter of cold cuts, some hearty rye bread firm enough to chip a tooth, and that’s about it. Soft, American white bread was not allowed in our house. Its mushy texture often brought out my father’s single food-related curse: “I wouldn’t feed that to a pig!”
Our cold cuts were not made by Oscar Meyer. While the name sounds German, pre-packaged meats were not considered worthy for our dinner table. They were left to the unwashed masses of the city’s public schools, and for prison inmates across the nation.
As for us Germans, all cold cuts were sliced at the German delicatessen (always pronounced in full; never called a “deli”). My mom would go there and point out the meats she wanted. Then she would get a couple of pounds of butter.
This was no ordinary, American butter. (“American butter! Soft! Weak!”) No, this was real butter. You could see the Volkswagen-sized block of it on the back table. The person behind the counter would grab a sword and carve out a brick of butter, then wrap it in wax paper for my mom to take home.
This brings us to the reason German’s insist on hard rye bread: Lesser breads mash down to unrecognizable shreds when you attempt to put German butter on it. My theory is that German butter comes from tough German cows with names like Brunhilda and Grizelda who are lovingly fed grass and concrete to make their milk hard as granite. At dinner, we’d spend a lot of time trying to slice a paper-thin curl of butter off of the brick. Our aim was to have a slice thin enough to spread on the bread without gouging holes into it, the size of lunar craters.
Even if you were successful at slicing off a piece of butter, it would sit on your sandwich as thick as a roofing shingle. Then you’d put your delicatessen meat on it, maybe some horseradish over that, and bite in.
Biting into a German sandwich was like an archaeological dig: Layers. There would be the topsoil of horseradish, followed by a sedimentary layer of meat, then the odd and thick slab of butter before you’d reach the bedrock of firm bread. Compare that to the typical bologna with mayo on white. Ugh!
When you’re young, you just want to fit in. You want to dress like your friends, talk like your friends, and share the same foods with your friends. As a child of immigrants I found that impossible. But as you grow up, you realize your heritage isn’t something to ignore, but embrace – even if you can never bring yourself to buy hard, German butter.
Rudy Linke is a survivor of Dave Fox’s online humor writing course. His parents, fresh off the boat from Germany, met at an amusement park in Chicago. Rudy jokes, “My dad used a courtship style that, if attempted today, would be called stalking.”
A member of Toastmasters International, he is currently focusing on humorous speeches. He is married with two grown children, and continues to live and work in Chicago.