I consider myself lucky to have the type of job where I’m able to travel the world to visit customers and business partners. Part of the fun of visiting is dining and getting intimate with my customers and their food culture. One of my business partners is located in a little town in middle-northwestern Germany called Wolfenbuttel. This also happens to be the town where Jaegermeister is manufactured, so most of our entertainment, when visiting involves copious amounts of this regional digestive. Contrary to pop culture, Jaeger does not include elk’s blood, but in my opinion it doesn’t make it any more ‘digestible’.
The drink that translates “Master Hunter” up until only a few decades ago was considered an old person’s drink by young Germans. Its 56 herbs and spices were formulated to help digest the starchy and heavy German fare. The U.S. would probably have never known Jaegermeister, if it weren’t for a Jewish-American businessman, Sydney Frank, with whom I share a birthday. Frank began promoting the drink along with the heavy metal music community. He bought exclusive importing rights in the 1980s and began associating Jaeger with hair bands like Metallica, Motley Crue, Pantera, Slayer, and The Bloodhound Gang. Frank saw to it that Jaeger became the tour sponsor for these bands’ national tours and the drink took off in America. Soon, college frat kids were doing shots of Jaeger in a glass of Red Bull and calling it a Jaegerbomb. Something originally invented as an aid to digestion had now completely changed it’s brand image to a hipster sport drink. That made Jaeger on American college campuses a drink that aided you in bringing up what you ate, rather than keeping it down. If you went to any pub in Wolfenbuttel and asked for ‘ein Jaegerbomb, bitte”, they’d laugh and garnish you an American.
I had a similar experience while in Wolfenbuttel with a German dish whose use we’ve completely bastardized – sauerkraut. Sauerkraut, too, was invented to help digest the starchy north German fare. It’s been called the ‘broom’ and long known for its gaseous consequences. In Germany, contrary to the U.S. , it’s ALWAYS a side dish, never a condiment.
Wolfenbuttel lies in an area known as Braunschweig – an area famous for its currywurst. The company we partner with holds the Guiness Book of World Record’s title to the World’s longest currywurst. It’s a long sausage that has a hard outer casing and a concentrated spicy, chewy center, served overflowing its long oval plate. It swims in a warm pool of currygewurst, or curry ketchup and sprinkling of garam marsala or curry powder, and comes with a mountain of frites or fries, which you use to sop up the ketchup pool as you devour the sausage. I’ve had currywurst at many of the local Oktoberfests in southwest Ohio, but we always top it with a generous portion of our beloved sauerkraut.
Our business partner has a fast food restaurant on the corner near their factory called Hassburger, which sells this regional delicacy. In the U.S. we eat our brats, currywurst, and mets on buns and if you’re in a town with Germany heritage, like Cincinnati, you add a heaping portion of sauerkraut on top, with a spicy Dusseldorf mustard. This is how you would typically eat such a sausage at the Reds’ or Bengals’ stadium. So I’ve always thought the German way to eat a sausage was covered in sauerkraut, because, why they heck would you eat sauerkraut on the side – it’s a condiment.
So, when our business partners took us to lunch at the Hassburger and we all ordered the local delicacy, I thought I’d impress by ordering sauerkraut and eating it how I thought all Germans ate their sausage. When the currywursts came, the sauerkraut to my surprise was served in a bowl on the side. I thought nothing as I poured the sauerkraut over my currywurst and began eating. But, my German colleagues looked at me as if I’d defaced the sausage. Soon others in the restaurant noticed what I’d done, and even the cooks turned around in horror to see my kraut topped currywurst. I thought we might be kicked out of the restaurant.
I asked my colleagues what was wrong, and they told me Germans never top their sausages with sauerkraut. Sauerkraut is always a side, never to be used to mask the flavor of the beloved currywurst. It’s almost an insult to top the wurst with something used to help in digestion that’s only a side-with- a purpose. So, I’d insulted my hosts, but learned a valuable lesson – never assume our German food customs are the same as they are in the Vaterland.
So when did we start adding sauerkraut to German sausages in America? What’s our American obsession with loading our dogs and sausages with relish and condiments so that you need a bib to eat them? The coney island hot dog was invented in the early teens before the U.S. entered World War I. We put pickle relish, sautéed onions and peppers, horseradish, and even chili on these dogs.
In World War I, meat became scarce and was rationed. Sauerkraut, which was mostly cabbage, on the other hand, was cheap. In America, during World War I, sauerkraut, was renamed ‘Liberty Slaw’ to disconnect it from Germany and the awful Kaiser. There was a great deal of anti-German hysteria in America during World War I, that led to a lot of Americanizing of German street names, family names, and even foods. Liberty Slaw topped hot dogs and sausages to extend them as a meal and make it more filling. This became a common convenience meal amongst the immigrant working class, and even though it mixed two items from Germany, it mixed them in a way that Germans never would have done themselves.
So, what we thought of as a German custom – topping German style sausages with German sauerkraut was actually a result of war rationing and hyper patriotism!