The Love of the Currywurst
I always try to be positive about German food. Forget the Sauerkraut clichés (please note that sauerkraut is supposed to be a great delicacy when it is called “choucroute” and eaten by the French) and concentrate on the growing number of Michelin chefs, its delicious wholegrain and its extraordinary beer. But this is not the whole story, is it?
There is really nothing redeeming to be said for German street food and above all my bête noir, the Berlin currywurst. Not that there is anything very noir, very black about the currywurst. Neon-red, yes; bright irradiated yellow, yes. The currywurst is about as natural a product as nylon and, when eaten with its sausage skin intact (“Mit Darm”, say the connoisseurs) tastes about the same. Now Berlin – which, in its usual characteristic way, sees love of the currywurst as a test of loyalty to the city even if it does send tourists moving to the public toilets after the third bite – now Berlin has opened a museum, a kind of shrine, to the terrible, sauce covered sausage. Situated near Checkpoint Charlie, it hopes to attract 350.000 visitors a year. The museum organisers will try to convince tourists that the currywurst is somehow glamorous. But how do you make a pork sausage smothered in a syrup made up of tomato ketchup, curry powder and cayenne pepper into something desirable? Vienna has its Schnitzel, Brussels has its mussels and Berlin has a piece of barely digestible deep fried technicolor wurst. It doesn’t seem quite fair.
A wurst under pressure
The currywurst has its fans. Gerhard Schröder, the former German chancellor was once married to a strict vegetarian. On his way to work, safely out of view of his wife Hillu, he would have his chauffeur stop so that he could gulp down a currywurst. The American food writer Anthony Bourdain, notorious for his scathing judgements, has even said good things about the currywurst. But then he also ate, and said good things about the rectum of a Namibian warthog. He’s just that kind of guy.
The currywurst has been coming under pressure on the streets of Berlin from the doener kebab sellers, run by Turks but also by Lebanese and Iraqis. Berlin opens up more to its ethnic Turkish community – some 300.000 of them – so too have its citizens come to accept that there are other ways to satisfy a sudden hunger. It is just about possible to argue that the doener is healthier than the currywurst. There are Kebab stands that slap a piece of lettuce and tomato on the meat thus triumphing the vitamin-free Berlin sausage. Is the new museum trying to correct the balance? To rescue the currywurst from its well-deserved oblivion, establish it as part of the culinary history of the city?
Well, yes, perhaps. And there is a bit of inter-city rivalry in play too. The Berlin version of the wurst-history runs as follows: in the ruins of the city after the war, it was women who had to clear up the rubble and earn enough to feed their families. The immediate post-war years saw the rise of a quite extraordinary breed of female entrepreneurs. One of them was Herta Heuwer who set up a sausage stand in 1949 in Stuttgarter Platz, the red light district of the British occupied part of West Berlin. British soldiers helped her to get the ingredients of her currywurst mixture, stirred in an enamel bucket: tomato pulp, curry powder, Worcestershire sauce and a supposedly secret ingredient. By 1959 this sauce had become so popular it had been patented as “Chillup”. As the West Berliners grew richer, eating a currywurst last thing at night on the Ku’damm became fashionable. Typically one gathered at Franky’s curry-station at the rough end of the Ku’damm – far away from its designer shops and sedate coffeehouses – after the theatres had closed, to eat one of his foul sausages and drink Sekt. There were actors, journalists and prostitutes, all reluctant to end the party. Franky who owned a penthouse on the Ku’damm, died one night in bed after falling asleep with a cigarette in his mouth. I remember attending his funeral in the 1990s in the Heerstrasse cemetery in Berlin, the ceremony graced by underworld figures such as Tommy Turnschuh, a great many tattooed boxers and peroxide blonde women in black. Afterwards, of course, everyone went off to eat a currywurst.
Other German cities dispute Berlin’s claim on the currywurst. The lead character in Uwe Timm’s 1993 book, The Invention of the Currywurst claims to have eaten the sausage in Hamburg in 1947. And there are those in the Ruhr who are sure that the currywurst was their idea.
The Imbissbude is vanishing
Why anyone would want to fight for the honour of this sausage defies my imagination. The point about these wurst-wars is not about their ability to impress Michelin inspectors, but about the sense of community they engender. The currywurst connected a certain kind of West Berliner that is now becoming extinct. The same goes for the East Berlin counter-currywurst offered at Konnopke’s. The very idea of a snack bar, of street-eating, is disappearing. An interesting new book, Der Fritten-Humboldt (Goldmann Verlag), shows how the snack bar – the Imbissbude – became part of the German street architecture, how it is vanishing, and how the people who once frequented these places have been left somehow homeless. The book is written by Jon Flemming Olsen, a graphic designer who acts in the cult comedy series Dittsche with the philosopher-comedian, Olli Dittrich, and who established the country band “Texas Lightning” which was once Germany’s candidate in the Eurovision song contest. To research his book Olsen has been serving incognito behind the bars (theken) of snack stands throughout the country. So he knows what he's talking about. Naturally, as someone who has been successful in life, he is not an altogether typical currywurst-and-chips eater. He has understood though that this is not about the eating or the cooking: it is about providing space for Germans to ruminate about the ups and downs of their lives.
The heart-lung support system of the cheap fill-me-up-until-I’m-full industry
“Hier macht sich niemand schöner als er ist,” concluded a Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung review of Olsen’s safari. “Nobody here pretends to be better then he really is.” The currywurst stand is just part of what critic Alexander Marguier calls the “Herz-Lungen-Maschine des billigen Sattmachgewerbes” (“the heart-lung support system of the cheap fill-me-up-until-I’m-full industry”). On his investigation tour Olsen comes across Hakim from Herat in Afghanistan. There he had learned as a furrier how to butcher meat. By various roundabout means he landed in Germany and now serves spare ribs, with home-made spices, from a battered old van near an army barracks in Heidelberg – his main (and very enthusiastic) customers are US soldiers. Typisch deutsch? Well, not really. But a sign of the possibilities presented in a modern, changing Germany.
is Germany correspondent for the London daily newspaper "The Times". He has been living in Germany for twenty years and is author of the column "My Berlin" in the "Tagesspiegel". In his book "My dear Krauts" he describes the peculiarities of everyday life in Germany with typical British humour.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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