germany before and after siebeck; school food afterthoughts

Since I became interested in reading a newspaper, I have been admiring the columns in the German weekly Die Zeit by the gastronomy critic Wolfram Siebeck. This admiration was certainly helped along by my own teenage passion for satirical writing (I don’t want to know what my teachers thought of my own random contributions to that style).

In a relentless crusade, Siebeck attacked the German Plumpsküche (a melodramatic privy-related fantasy-word for plain cooking), the food industry and the stupidity of the average consumer. In German culinary circles, his many word creations such as “pale hormone bird” (chicken), his descriptions of certain regional dishes (“…a smell of burning tyres…”) and his asides on certain ingredients (“onion, burp, burp”) are absolute classics, reminiscent of Shakespeare, Beethoven or Inspector Clouseau.

In Germany, Siebeck has had a great influence. When Siebeck’s articles and recipe books began to get more widely known, a subdued urge for renewal was clearly already present in the collective German culinary mind – an urge to shake off the shackles of mealy gravy cooking, the frozen-peas-in-margarine-culture and the general cook-it-long-cook-it-mushy-acceptance. In a few decades, things have changed drastically. At sixteen, I once attended to a birthday party, which was simply based on a waggon-load of grilled Argentinian steaks. The philosophy of the seventies was “Food is good if you barely can afford it, and if it’s more than the trunk of your Mercedes holds.”

In a TV cooking show yesterday I heard that nowadays, luxury food has become a German status symbol. “Luxury” means: top ingredients, multiple-star cooking, the best wines, enjoyed by people who want to be seen as someone who understands food. German food shops these days have a stunning range of goods on stock (I remember settling on lamb fillets for a birthday dinner at the last minute – and I had no trouble getting the freshest, tenderest and thinnest lamb fillets I’ve ever seen), and people often have a good eye for what’s fresh and what isn’t. The only real threats to a completely succeeded German cooking reform are fast food, traditionalism (what’s wrong with gloppy chicken ragout and sweet-sour lettuce in axle grease?) and a lack of time (gotta warm this heap of stuff up and eat it in TWO minutes).

Other countries have school food. Someone who has been forced for years to bear creations like cabbage soup and overcooked rice with ‘Sausage Stroganoff’; who has learned that salad is a synonym for rough, wet chunks of iceberg lettuce, a mountain of carrot (grated early in the morning on a fine grater) and pale pink Slush-Island Dressing; and who has learned that instant potato puree and package pizza are special treats; who, finally, has been forced to gobble these temptations down in 20 minutes of time because the next horde of gourmands is already howling in the hallway; such a person will have a hard time appreciating sincere, good food as actually simpler, cheaper and more pleasant. ‘Food needs to be suited for quick consumption, everything else is an exaggeration.’ The acceptance of unbearable food in education is – at least here in Sweden – such an integral part of everyone’s expectations that it cannot be discussed at all. During my glorious time as chairman of the local school’s parent association I had occasion to verify this:

There had been several children’s complaints about the food at school. When my own children began coming with detailed reports about waterlogged overcooked lukewarm potatoes, cold, inflated pasta and unspeakable tomato-goo creations to cover it, I could fill in the rest of the picture without any difficulty. From our hundreds of school concerts I was acquainted with the Swedish school-food-evergreens – I knew enough. Eventually, matters had to be discussed in a meeting with the head of the school. I tried: “There have been some remarks about the food, children have been complaining about cold potatoes and…” I was sternly interrupted: “We are very proud of our cook, and we are very grateful for her enthusiasm; everyone who wants to try out our food is welcome. Our food is good.”

Well naturally. It was in fact so good, that I was forced to establish a new routine. Every day at three, I would have to create a snazzy dish of something for two hungry children, who – again – hadn’t been able to force down the fish, the soup, the macaroni, the potato gratin (what in the world can go wrong with potato gratin?). I made pasta sauce with parsley, garlic and smothered anchovies. Wild mushroom risotto – black olives and pickled garlic at the side. Fillets of chicken in a creamy sauce. Fresh potatoes with garden herbs – that kind of simple dish. My kids are no fools.

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