My Berlin Kitchen

Blogger Luisa Weiss's celebration of German cuisine separates 'My Berlin Kitchen' from the pack of food memoirs.

My Berlin Kitchen By Luisa Weiss Penguin Group 320 pp.

As Proust made clear, food can be a powerful trigger of memories. Luisa Weiss, the only child of an Italian mother and American father, spent her early childhood in still-divided Berlin and grew up further split between Boston and Europe after her parents divorced when she was three. She discovered that cooking – and later, writing about food – were a way to integrate her various national identities and to find her way home. 

My Berlin Kitchen is an offshoot of Weiss's popular food blog, The Wednesday Chef, which she began in 2005. Inspired by Julie Powell's blog about her year of cooking her way through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (which became the enormously successful book and movie "Julie and Julia"),  Weiss' project was to chip away at the piles of recipes she'd clipped from various newspapers' Wednesday food sections. Like many bloggers, she found her voice – a mix of personal journal and cooking diary – and her audience, which in turn led to this book.

Part memoir and part love story about both her indirect path to Mr. Right and the foods that comforted her along the way, "My Berlin Kitchen" bears more in common with Amanda Hesser's charming "Cooking For Mr. Latte" than with Powell's book. 

Weiss's peripatetic childhood commuting between her two loving parents left her feeling like a "strange little hybrid of a person, easily adaptable, fluent in many languages, an outsider everywhere." After college in Boston and a year in Paris, she settled in New York City for 10 years, where she eventually landed her dream job as a cookbook editor and became engaged to her easygoing boyfriend, "the blog's hungry mascot." Belatedly she discovered he was travel-averse. Increasingly uneasy about the life she was falling into, she ultimately made the hard decision to break off the relationship. Soon afterward, she decided to move back to Germany – which felt more like home than anywhere else – and to an earlier boyfriend.  

Although her tale has a happy ending, there's a lot of breast-beating over her Big Decision, and some between-the-lines resentment, too, at the transcontinental bind her parents' divorce put her in.  Her prose is sprinkled with conversational "bear with me"s and "trust me"s and sappy confidences ("I had listened to my intuition. I had saved my own life")­ – all of which play better on blogs than in books. Yet there's also an endearing earnestness to her story.

But what really separates "My Berlin Kitchen" from the pack of food memoirs is its celebration of German cuisine. As Weiss notes, "Germany, with its overcast skies and its inescapable history, often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to capturing the imagination of food lovers and romantics. There's not much use in competing with sleepy Provençal towns and picturesque Italian villages."

Although she does include recipes for such German classics as Pickled Herring Salad with Potatoes and Beets, and Pea Soup made with potatoes and wieners, Weiss makes a strong case for German cooking being about more than just sausages and potatoes. Her recipes for seasonal specialties featuring wild-harvested fruit and vegetables include elderflower syrup, white asparagus salad, and Pflaumenkuchen – a yeasted plum cake.  While perhaps unlikely to make American readers rush to their kitchens (or to the Internet to source the hard-to-find ingredients), they're certainly intriguing. Her evocation of elaborate German Christmas celebrations, complete with spicy honey cookies and roasted goose that's "not for the weak or for the faint of heart," is particularly delectable.

Many of the recipes in "My Berlin Kitchen" are comfort foods rooted in Weiss's childhood, the preparation of which later assuaged her chronic homesickness.  From her father's homely, simple, vegetarian meals, she offers a meatless tomato, vegetable and bean Depression Stew – good for both economic and emotional low points. Sour Cherry Quarkauflauf, a "rustic cherry soufflé of sorts" made with Quark, the ubiquitous, low-fat, German fresh cheese, is from her beloved Tagesmutter, literally day-mother, or nanny, while her Pizza Siciliana with escarole and anchovies (she's big on anchovies) comes from her Italian uncle.

Some of her favorite foods, though, are from the pros, whom she's always careful to credit.  Amidst Weiss's schmaltzy if heartwarming story about finding "home in the kitchen," it's an added bonus to discover Bill Telepan's appealing Tomato Bread Soup, Jamie Oliver's pizza dough, and Jacques Pepin's Apple Tart.  

Heller McAlpin, a frequent contributor to Christian Science Monitor, reviews books regularly for NPR.org and The Washington Post, among other publications.

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