I was 42 when I finished my Ph. D. Then I spent 9 months in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California Medical School in the Anatomy Department working as a post doctoral fellow. A group from the department often went out for lunch in the neighborhood to a local Mexican Restaurant. The Medical School was in a part of L A where English was not spoken on the street or in the shops. I had never studied Spanish, so I was always a bit uneasy except when inside the fortress of the school. This was my first introduction to Mexican food and I loved it.
I have no other food memories from that year, except the pleasure of driving to San Diego to my mother’s house where I had good home cooking.
One day a visiting scientist from Germany gave a lecture in the general area of my dissertation. After the lecture I went up talk to him; he offered me a job, and off I went to Germany. My older kids were in college in the United States, but Ben, who was only 4, went with me. I worked at a branch of the Max Planck Institute in Wilhelmshaven, on the North Sea.
Most of the scientists in the department where I worked were not German. There were 3 from Chile, 2 from the US, 2 from England, 1 Israeli, and 1 German besides the Chief. Work was conducted in English. Ben spoke fluent German in about 3 months. Mine never did progress.
Many of the scientists had apartments at the institute, but when I arrived there was none available for Ben and me, so at first we had a tiny flat in the city of Wilhelmshaven. It had a bathroom, a closet kitchen and a sitting room/bedroom with fold up beds. When the beds were unfolded we had to step on the beds to get from one side of the room to the other. I bought a 13 year old Opal Kadet (Ford product) to get around in.
In Germany I lived a quiet, regulated life. Every morning I took Ben to daycare, run by the government and the Catholic Church which is the government established religion. Then I drove to the Institute, which consisted of a group of red brick buildings beside an artificial lake, the Banter See. The institute was surrounded by lawns, crisscrossed with paths and beds of old roses.
Work started precisely at 8:30, and at 10:30 we stopped for “Frustuck” (breakfast). We gathered around a long table in the main lab and had coffee and a snack, if we had brought one with us.
Then we worked until 1, when we had an hour for lunch. I sometimes ate at the Institute dining room. It was cheap and usually edible. German food, I found, is predominately white. A typical lunch (which would be the main meal of the day) was cauliflower, mashed potato, and a pale pork cutlet.
Sometimes on Thursdays Ana Maria, a biochemist from Chile, and I would drive to town for a pizza. Other times she and I (we were always sort of dieting) would spend the lunch hour talking about food and then go back to work. Ana Maria said that the only way to easily lose weight was to fall in love. We both had boy friends, but you only lose weight in the early stages, and we were past that.
At 4:30 I would drive back into town to get Ben. Then he and I would go to the grocery store, which was in the basement of the main department store, Karstadt.
Typical German evening meals would be called “Butter-Brot” (bread and butter) and would be sandwiches and side snacks. We often ate supper at the country house of Allen Hughes, an English biochemist from the Institute, and his wife, Sharon, who had a son Ben’s age. The house was a rented farmhouse and was attached to a huge smelly cow barn that was used by a neighbor farmer. The kitchen door led into the barn, and when it was opened there was an overpoweringly rotten-sweet scent of manure. In fact, in that part of north Germany, the air everywhere smelled faintly of cow manure.
Supper would be a lovely spread of little sandwiches, rolls, avocado, olives, cold-cuts, tomatoes, butter, fish and liver spreads. Ben and his friend played together bilingually. A sentence could begin in German and end in English. They used nouns interchangeably in either language. They both willingly ate foods that most American kids would never touch.
In those days shops in Germany closed at 6:00 in the evening on weekdays, and at noon on Saturday. Once a month they stayed open on Saturday afternoon. The foods that I looked for in the Saturday markets had to last the week. I only had a tiny under counter refrigerator.
I always bought Matjes herrings. These can be had in north Germany, Holland and Scandinavia. The little fish are salt and sugar cured, and in my opinion should not be too sweet. I think the best are Dutch. Sometimes we would drive to Groningen, Holland, a day trip for us, and buy the Matjes herrings in sandwiches from street venders.
Another favorite was Grunland Krabben, which were small cooked prawns. We tried lots of kinds of sausages, and had favorites. We got Brotchen (lovely little rolls) at the bakery. German bread is often very good. Here is a confession. You can get, in a can, something called schmaltz. It is just meat drippings, and I ate it, in secret, on the German dark bread.
On weekends we often went for day trips to nearby towns. My all time favorite, and the one I would go back to Germany for, was Bad Zwischenahn, where there is a wonderful restaurant in an ancient brick building near a large windmill and the lake. The specialty is smoked eel, one of the most delicious fish in the world. Yes, they look like snakes, and you just have to get over their shape. The flesh is delicate and full of those kinds of fats that are actually good for the heart.
Eels are brought to the table on a large platter, which they hang over on both ends in their snaky way. Each eel has a price tag hung to its tail, depending on weight. You choose the size you think you can eat. The eel is eaten with hands, starting at either end. To go with the eel you can order bread and butter and schnaps (white grain liquor), served smoking cold and sipped from a large pewter spoon. Eating the eel is a messy business, and when you finish the waiter comes around with a bottle of schnapps which he sprinkles on your hands to cut the fat. You mop up with big white napkins. I hereby resolve to go back and get some more smoked eel before I die.
The experimental animals at the institute were pigs. These were raised at a distant agricultural experimental station in Mariensee. The organ we used was the uterus. Most of the experiments were biochemical, but I used minute bits of tissue embedded in plastic and cut into thin sections with a diamond knife for examination in the electron microscope. This way I could see the complex structure of the inside of cells. Obviously there is a lot more to a pig than the uterus, and the other bits were not wasted.
Sometimes our institute was the lucky winner of the rest of a pig. If so we had a pig feast. This was usually held outdoors in the institute grounds, at a big barbeque. A long table was set up and we had a full course dinner. Beer flowed freely.
The main course was pork roasted over the open fire, and the hors’doeuve was pork tar-tar sprinkled with lemon juice, salt and chopped onion. That sounds dangerous to Americans, but there is no trichinosis in Germany, and these pigs were raised in sanitary conditions. Raw pork is regularly eaten in Germany. Raw salt cured or smoked ham is a delicacy.
Through a series of odd coincidences I was offered a job at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC, and Ben and I returned to the States, where we both underwent culture shock. Life moved too fast in the US. In Germany it was so ordered and measured. And of course, all of our eating habits reverted to American ways. Gone was butter-brot. Many of the things we bought in Germany were not available. Stores were open 24 hours and the shopping carts were enormous.
Once when I was in line to pay at the grocery store Ben said, in his piping six year old voice, “Mommy, when are we going to have kidneys and spinach for dinner?” People all around turned to look at me, the child-abuser.
I often drove south to my friend Penny’s farm in southern Virginia, and there I discovered the pleasure of eggs just snatched from under the chickens and just dug potatoes. She had a stream running through her yard in which watercress grew abundantly. Fresh watercress makes great salads. And in the spring she had places where she found morels.
Ben and I and my youngest daughter, Deborah (who was inching her way through college), lived in a little bat infested house in Bethesda MD for 2 years, and then the rolling stone rolled again. Ben and I moved to Atlanta because I married for the third time.
In Atlanta food took on a new significance as Ben grew up to become a chef.
More in a future post.