The Germans and barbecues

Serial Grillers

Angela Merkel und George Bush beim gemeinsamen Barbecue in Trinwillershagen 2006; Foto: REGIERUNGonline / BergmannAngela Merkel und George Bush beim gemeinsamen Barbecue in Trinwillershagen 2006; Foto: REGIERUNGonline / BergmannThe happiest encounter between Angela Merkel and George Bush was probably two years ago in a tiny north German village called Trinwillershagen. After years of tension between the Bush Administration and the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the President was happy to deal with a more soft-speaking German leader. She was invited to the President's ranch in Crawford, Texas – a rare privilege, a bit like being asked to tea by the Queen or for Martini cocktails at the Playboy villa by Hugh Hefner. But Ms Merkel wanted to get her barbecue in first, to show that Germany was a power to be reckoned with.

A Carnivore's Picnic

The Chancellor didn't have a ranch but in her east German constituency, on the windy Baltic coast, there was the old Red Banner collective farm. It was not exactly Texas – the village has 1,162 people and is surrounded not by oil wells but by 18 Kyoto-friendly wind mills. But the new owner of the Red Banner tried his best: he set out to hunt a wild boar, found a 30 kilo specimen, shot it and – after the Secret Service had checked it for poison and the vet had removed the bullet – soon it was the centre of the barbecue, stuffed with onion, bacon and garlic. Venison and duck was also grilled: it was a carnivore's picnic. Everything was done to simulate an American BBQ. Only Condoleeza Rice, rumoured to be a vegetarian, looked a little green. A triumphant metaphor for the transatlantic relationship – nutritious, slow-burning, difficult to digest. Angela Merkel's advisors saw it as a triumph; against all the odds she had created a ranch-like atmosphere and made George Bush feel at home. But, of course, it was a long, long way from the American culinary dream. "It was great, Angela," said the President, "so this is what you call a real German Grillfest!"

The most enthusiastic grillers in Europe

Copyright: ColourboxThe fact is, there is nothing quite like a German barbecue. The word barbecue seems to come from the Mexican-Spanish "barbocoa", meaning "holy place of fire". The Americans took up the barbecue habit first – it became part of the small-town idyll; a house, a car, a wife, two rosy-cheeked children, and a grill in the garden. Grilling steak in the open was a way of letting neighbours know that you were successful. The public grill came to Germany later: in the 1950s but it soon established itself as a "Volkssport", a national competitive activity. Nowadays Germans rank as the most enthusiastic grillers in Europe. Naturally other societies also like an occasional steak charred over coals. But none has devised the elaborate rituals of the German barbecue; it really is a "holy place of fire".

The German Grillfest has become one of the prime bonding experiences of the suburbs. Above all it is the moment when the German office worker - usually absent from the neighbourhood during the day – asserts control over his home terrain. If ever you need to be reminded that the first barbecue was a Stone Age invention, you just have to visit a street on a summer evening when Germany is playing football. The process of hunting down the animal – that is buying sausages, steak and mincemeat from the supermarket – laying the fire and supervising it is a purely masculine event. For young freshly married men grilling with the in-laws is a rite of passage, designed to show the new extended family that they have enough testosterone to father children. For middle-aged men it is one of the few moments when they can still shout "Bring some more beer Schatz, I'm busy cooking!" without having a frying pan smashed over their head. The grill is the very opposite of feminism. It is a veritable parade of male hormones. And since it is a male domain - can you imagine Alice Schwarzer grilling a Bratwurst? No – it comes with rules.

A Social Science

Copyright: Colourbox German men can talk for hours on how to choose the right kind of meat (chicken is regarded as too effeminate for male-grilling because a) it is too low in fat and b) difficult to cook without causing food poisoning), on the correct sauce to flavour beef, the exact moment when one should add herbs, the role of smoke, the correct equipment (the alpha-German male disapproves of the round, transportable grill, the so-called "Kugelgrill"), the correct fuel, the use of aluminium foil, the time needed before flipping a kebab. So much to learn and remember; no wonder the German male had made the barbecue into a modern science.

A social science, of course. The German courts have made sure of that. The Munich regional court (Landgericht) has just ruled that neighbours – unhappy with the smoke drifting over the fence, the smell of meat, the sizzling and the hissing – have to accept that the barbecue is part of a German summer. If the barbecue is kept within "reasonable" limits, the angry neighbour cannot go to court. But what exactly is "reasonable"? The Munich court said that 26 barbecue evenings over four months was reasonable. The Stuttgart Landgericht was tougher – only 3 barbecue evenings a year was acceptable, and they should not last more than two hours. The no longer existing Bavarian Supreme regional court said – very precisely – that five coal-fired barbecue evenings per summer should be the limit, and the grilling should be carried out at the far end of the garden. A Bonn court insists that you have to inform your neighbour at least 48 hours in advance. Strange? Not really: just typisch deutsch.

The barbecue is facing a revolution

The fact is the grilled Bratwurst is a climate-killer. German women, always suspicious of their husbands' Neanderthal enthusiasm for lighting fires and eating flesh in the garden, are beginning to move in on the grill-ritual in order to make it more ecologically sensitive. They have started to buy bio-wurst that is guaranteed to be "climate-neutral", certified as an eco-wurst from the farmyard to the shop counter. These sausages are more thoroughly monitored than even Telekom clients. The carbon emission of the slaughterhouse, production, the transport and storage are all investigated. Fat is removed. And windmills in India have been sponsored by the sausage producers to offset any other additional ecological damage. The barbecue coal also has to be specially bought, because of course it releases carbon dioxide not only in the direction of your neighbour but also into the atmosphere.

Somehow, this kind of global responsibility does not appeal to the Stone Age German male. It seems to undermine the point of the barbecue which is to defy political correctness. But German women are not so inhibited and sociologists are noting a change around the "holy fire". Women, sensitive to global change and increasingly sceptical about the efforts of their menfolk, are joining the sizzle club. The trend surely began on that hot Mecklenburg summer evening two years ago when Angela Merkel munched a carbon-neutral wild boar with George Bush.

Guten Appetit!

Roger Boyes
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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July 2008

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