Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Berlin, the Land of White Meat

Before I left for Germany, a handful of people told me, “Berlin is a good place to go if you’re eating meat now.”  They were right. 

To be fair, Berlin is a good place to go for a lot of things. 

It’s a good place to go for laid-back bars and biergartens serving cheap, excellent beer.  My favorite was 25.  Its German name, fünf und zwanzig, is nearly impossible for native Anglophones to wrap their tongues around.  But after a couple of €3 Staropramens and a bit of time spent playing on one of the wooden swings hanging from the tall trees on the edge of the Spree River, the pronunciation problem won’t really matter anymore.

It’s a good place to go for thrift shops and markets with infinitely kitschy and weird merchandise.  Oderberger Strasse is packed with boutiques selling Soviet-era clothes, furnishings, and tchotchkes with more entertainment value than practical value.  For items you might actually want to buy, head to the flea market on Boxhagener Platz, whose piles of new and used household items, accoutrements, and works of art contain the occasional treasure.

It’s also a good place to go for culinary treats that have nothing to do with meat.  Whole-wheat waffles topped with caramelized walnuts and cherries at a cozy coffee shop called Kauf Dich Glücklich stand out in my mind, as does fondant-coated marzipan cake (one of dozens of varieties of pastries) at the cafe at the Opera House on the Unter den Linden.

But it’s true that the main culinary attraction for a temporary omnivore spending a weekend in Berlin is the meat, and I wanted to try a couple of German classics before I left. 

First on the agenda was schnitzel, which I ordered at a restaurant called Schwarzwald.  Alongside potatoes sautéed with chewy diced bacon and a salad of translucent cucumber ribbons, I received two sizable cutlets of thin, breaded pork.  The meat was juicy and white, with a uniform texture and an anodyne flavor.  The other omnivore at the table, an American who’d spent the past semester in Berlin, swapped me some of her flatbread for a taste of my entrée and proclaimed it good schnitzel.

My second taste of meat in Berlin was weisswürst, the Bavarian fresh white sausage that is traditionally poached in hot water and then peeled before eating.   I was lucky enough to try the sausage in the context of a homemade Bavarian feast prepared by a real, live, very friendly German person named Sören.   The spread included a salty cheese spread called obatzda, whole-grain bread with pumpkin seeds, and pretzels.  The sausages were moist and without much strong flavor of their own, but they tasted heavenly with a dollop of sweet mustard.  Their skins, once removed, resembled castoff pantyhose, which was understandably disquieting.  But the sausage meat itself was mild, tender, and inoffensive.

Based on my (admittedly limited) experiences, inoffensive seems like a good word to describe German meat in general.  Whether pounded and breaded or ground and stuffed into casings, German meat has been thoroughly disguised.  Its color—white—is a clear indication that the people making it are interested not in preserving the visceral, bloody quality of meat, but in showing their culinary prowess by forming a finished product that resembles a piece of flesh as little as possible.

I tend to think of camouflaged meat as a product of fast food and of the industrialized food system—think chicken nuggets and ground meat patties of all kinds.  I also tend to think of camouflaged meat as an unqualified bad thing, a sign that diners are ignoring the true source of their food.  But Berlin was a good reminder that the practice of hiding meat’s provenance behind acquiescent textures and bland flavors is not a purely modern-day phenomenon—and not a purely detrimental phenomenon, either.  Germans have been disguising meat for generations.  And you know what?  It tastes pretty good.

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