Bavaria, in the mountains of southern Germany, isn’t just beautiful, it scales the heights of German cuisine.
When Joanne and I used to fly Northwest Airlines to visit our daughter in Switzerland, the best option was to fly Minneapolis to Frankfurt and take a rental car south to Switzerland. Driving through the uninspiring central part of Germany, we would invariably stop at the same roadside restaurant and inn – can’t remember the name – but after an overnight flight, it was always a welcome stop at day’s end. The sausages were many and enormous; the mound of mashed potatoes, buttery and plentiful. And the beer came in giant frosty mugs. Comforting, yes. Filling, OMG yes. But that was about it.
In his piece, “Belly Bombs Away,” Calvin Trillin writes, “German food has determined the outcome of more wars than all other cuisines combined.” As he tells it, “For centuries, those nasty Prussians have vanquished foe after foe, battle after battle…UNTIL LUNCH…after which they were too stuffed to remount.”
Indeed. German food is BIG FOOD. The Germans favor hearty meals that include PORK, BEEF and POULTRY – in that order.
Many people find it too rich and too heavy. Some complain that’s not refined, even a little crude, and certainly not artful.
I happen to love it.
Lucky for me that we live in Minnesota, where we’re blessed with good choices.
One is GASTHOF BAVARIAN HUNTER, up near Stillwater, where we introduced our young grandkids to German food. Sausage, sauerkraut and Shirley Temples reigned at our table, while a giant sampling platter of pork, and more pork, chicken, dumplings and spaetzle delighted a family of four a couple of tables away.
Our daughter loves THE BLACK FOREST INN, especially during summer in the beer garden. The veal shank with spaetzle and the Jaeger schnitzel both delight on a cold February night. Do not miss the APPLE STRUDEL here.
And by the way, I loved their ad campaign poking good-natured fun at the stoic, humorless reputation of Germans.
So not only is German food big, it can be weird…and it can be delightful.
Witness the “gut-busting” sausage platter below – but also the hedgehog-like creature called a HACKEPETER: raw minced pork and raw onion meant to be spread on toast. No thank you.
German LIMBURGER CHEESE has the dubious distinction of smelling like dirty, sweaty feet…with a fungal infection. Next to the hedgehog, check out the small wheels of HARZER KASE, a cheese well-suited for olfactory warfare. It’s great for dieters, I’m told; bad for your social life. This cheese will stink-up your refrigerator even if it’s wrapped. Eat it in a public place and people will move away from you.
However, the crispy pork schnitzels are divine. As is the seasonal white asparagus with Hollandaise and sliced steamed potatoes. That and a bottle of Riesling? YUM.
There is no rival in the world to the iconic APPLE STRUDEL (Remember how it was featured in Inglorious Bastards? If you don’t, the movie’s worth renting just for that scene.)
And what about GERMAN CHOCOLATE CAKE with its coconut-pecan frosting? I’m told that the recipe begins with “First, invade the kitchen.”
My first exposure to authentic German food was when I was in college and went to Chicago for a weekend. My uncle Ben took me to THE BERGHOFF in the heart of the Loop on West Adams Street. I was instantly transported to Germany via the kitschy décor (which I did not know was kitschy) and foods that I had never, ever seen or tasted before, with the possible exception of my Aunt Rose’s WARM GERMAN POTATO SALAD.
Dinner began with a sort of relish tray, except this one had liverwurst, pickled herring and stinky cheese. Next I ordered something called Sauerbraten (pot roast) with that ginger-snappy gravy…first time ever…and I got a minor tutorial on SCHNITZELS, including a simple breaded pork cutlet with a squeeze of lemon and its fancy brother, SCHNITZEL ala HOLSTEIN, topped with two fried eggs. (No beer for me at that age, because my uncle might tell my dad.) As I wolfed down my STRUDEL, the OOM-PAH BAND took the stage…
My memory of the world famous (and long ago closed) LUCHOW’S, the Grande Dame of German restaurants in New York, was being there with one of my New York clients. It was big – two or three floors – and heavily decorated with all of the Bavarian clichés. I was told that Paul Newman was a regular and that Lauren Bacall celebrated her 60th birthday there. But most of all I remember the big industrial scale in the entry, where the custom was for patrons to weigh-in before dinner and then weigh-in again afterward. My weight gain flirted with 2 pounds.
A closing that saddened me most was the shuttering of KARL RATZCH’S, a Milwaukee institution since 1904. KARL RATZCH’S was a Hollywood set – perfectly put together in every over-the-top design detail. It served two-fisted German cuisine accompanied by a danceable “whumppa” from the oom-pah band on stage. During our BUCA Milwaukee opening, Joanne and I went there probably a dozen times, the most memorable of which were during the festive holiday season when the place sparkled and glittered like a Christmas tree. So warm…so cozy…so safe.
The menu had the kind of stuff that most all German restaurants serve – schnitzels, sauerbraten, duck, goose, etc. – and an offering that was fantastic and absolutely new to me: a CRACKLING PORK SHANK (more about that later).
These emblematic German-American restaurants set the stage for me and my first encounter with Munich.
Like every American and Japanese tourist, we started with THE HOFBRAUHAUS, a few blocks from City Hall. It dubs itself the world’s most famous tavern, and who am I to disagree. It’s certainly the most distinctive, and probably the oldest – founded in 1589, with a capacity of probably 600 seats. The place has an energy that’s on steroids. It’s open 365 days a year and – a surprise to me – it’s owned by the Bavarian State Government. It’s a well-run, well-oiled machine.
You do not go to the HOFBRAUHAUS to dine, you go there to DRINK – and to eat giant pretzels with mustard. Most of all, you go there for a good time. The Hofbrauhaus is a beer hall that happens to serve food.
It’s probably best to go on the early side as things tend to get out of hand as the night progresses. Joanne and I were there with my 82-year-old mother and her 81-year-old sister, and by the time we left a 100-person CONGA line was singing and snaking through the crowded dining room, doing something that resembled the BUNNY HOP – only to the beat of the German oom-pah band. About the same time, a group of drunk Japanese businessmen were standing atop a table singing Lord knows what, loudly. Top that all off with more than a few guys passed out or sound asleep in their chairs.
With all that drinking, my guess is that the HOFBRAUHAUS must employ more than a couple of “VOMITEERS.”
Okay, okay, if you are tightly wound, DON’T GO. But if you can roll with it and not fight it,” I guarantee you a GOOD TIME.
Our Munich experience ended on a high culinary note. We came across the restaurant HOXNBAUER, a place that specializes in PORK SHANKS and VEAL SHANKS with crackling skin from the rotisserie. Steamed potatoes, potato dumplings and red cabbage round out the menu, and that’s about all they serve – whole shanks, half shanks, sliced shanks. But let me tell you: HOXNBAUER DOES SHANKS WELL! They sell ‘em by 100 gram units….or 4.50 euros per unit…..about thirty to forty bucks for a shank. We went twice.
Now here’s and interesting tidbit: The Wall Street Journal recently reviewed a book by Laura Shapiro, What She Ate, about Hitler’s mistress (and, in the final days, his wife), Eva Braun. “While prisoners starved in concentration camps, Braun joined the diners at Hitler’s well ladened table.” And she went on….”At the end, the inhabitants of Hitler’s bunker began blocking out reality with magnum after magnum.”
But here’s the thing: On their final day in the bunker – the day Hitler shot himself – he and Eva did not indulge in the fatherland’s cuisine. Shapiro writes, “Hitler is said to have eaten his final lunch of spaghetti and tomato sauce.”
Apparently more of a purist than the Fuhrer, Eva eschewed the Italian fare and went straight for the cyanide.