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Cast adrift in a sea of German cuisine

By JOHN GOULD / September 10, 1999



On a lovely Canadian afternoon in September 1966, Capt. Otto Eichorst of the German MV Wolfgang Russ (a.k.a. Yacht Rustbucket), brought his vessel to Montreal, eastbound Toronto to Hamburg, and took on eight passengers. The era of liners was ending, and travel agencies told customers that flight was the only way. We doubted that, and booked passage with the Montreal Shipping Company, whose agent told us the only reason freighters carried passengers was to give the captain some table company.

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On the smart liners, only superstars got to dine with the captain; lesser celebrities had to be content with the first mate or the radio operator. It was good to know we were qualified to hobnob with Captain Eichorst, a veteran sea dog out of Hamburg.

Captain Eichorst liked pork, and it was his vessel, so for 10 days we hurtled at 10 knots with pork every meal, and before we left the Strait of Belle Isle we eight jolly passengers hoped we'd never see a swine cutlet again. The voyage otherwise was100 percent, and we came to Hamburg eager for an extended visit in 10 countries without too much pork. That evening we would take our first supper abroad.

A gentleman I approached on the sidewalk had told me where we would find a number of restaurants. Next to shaking hands, the best exercise in Germany is Mahlzeit. Mahlzeit means mealtime, but it is also a greeting. If you see somebody on a park bench eating a frugal lunch, you should say, "Mahlzeit," and he will jump up, shake hands, ask how you are, and bid you auf you-know-what.

The big pleasure in Germany is to hear the people eat. I never got a good answer as to why the French and Italians get credit for the high cuisine. Balderdash! Try the wurst and kraut at Regensburg, or perhaps the scrambled eggs with Pfifferlinge at Nordhorn. The best French onion soup I ever stuck a tooth in was served at the Railroad Hotel in Tbingen. But I wander.

We selected a restaurant and entered, and upon looking at our shoes Herr Ober said, "Good evening. Welcome to Hamburg. Will you be in Germany long?" All waiters in Germany are named Mr. Ober. Then another Mr. Ober brought us the menus. I looked mine over and I pointed so my wife could see. "That's Geflgel" I said, "With an Umlaut. It means 'poultry.' It flies." She said, "I'll have anything that doesn't grunt or squeal." So then the real Herr Ober came, and my wife held up her menu, pointed at Geflgel, and said, "Ja, ja!"

I ordered a trout, partly for curiosity as to how a German Forelle compares with Yankee speckled trout, and I added the sweetest words ever spoken to a Herr Ober: "Wir haben Zeit." This, you see, distinguished us from the hurry-up tourists who are always in a rush and prefer fast food. "We have time," I said. He said, "Danke."

When my wife's platter of chicken came, it was a heaped-up mound of chicken livers. Under the general listing of Geflgel on my menu I found, too late, the fine print. It said, "Geflugelleber." That is, chicken livers. I said, "That's not exactly what you had in mind, is it, Dear?" She said, "No, but I'll eat every one." And she did.

I found the Lochleben, or German brown trout, bland of flesh but otherwise a respectable char, except it was boiled, not fried, and boiled blue is not an attractive color for trout.

We dined leisurely, and when Herr Ober asked my wife if she had found the chicken livers to her taste she said, "Gracious, yes! Kutt, kutt, kutt, ka-dark-kutt!"

Then we went to Munich, and we saw in the newspaper that the great world food fair was being held at Ikofa, the vast convention center, and that our own State of Maine had a booth. This we had to see. And we found our good friend Hildreth Hawes pushing Maine lobsters and Maine poultry. Hildreth was a marketing specialist for Maine foods at our Statehouse. He told us the Germans love our Hummer (lobsters) and stampede when he boils one off and serves it in small samples on a toothpick. But he said things were reluctant with the big "Cacklebirds."

These were frozen monstrous Geflgel for oven roasting, and he said the Germans don't go for roast chicken. They cut a bird up, he told us, and fry it. German food, he had discovered, was top-of-the-stove. He had all kinds of frozen roasting birds, and why didn't we take a Cacklebird? He said we could find something to do with one.

In Munich we stayed with Frau Edith von Itter at her pension in Swabing, and we brought her something she had never seen before, a Cacklebird ready to roast. She had no idea what to do, and with a knowing cackle my wife said, "Why don't I roast it for you and we'll have a real Yankee Sunday dinner in State o' Maine style here in Munich?"

Why not? The only problem was poultry seasoning. All the other "with-its" were easily at hand: onions, potatoes, even squash. Frau von Itter consulted LaRousse and Dr. Outke, and decided on substitutes with perhaps and maybe. So an apartment in Munich surprisingly smelled one beautiful day just like Thanksgiving back home. And I learned one more good German word. It seems a rooster, in Germany, doesn't crow "cocky-doodle-doo," as do our gentleman chickens at home. Ach, nein! He speaks German and says, "Kikeriki-kikeriki!" At least in Munich.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society