In a region where German food fests dominate from late August to October, there’s one myth to debunk. Not all Germans are lager-slurping, pretzel-biting, sausage-eating, lederhosen- wearing, kraut-chomping, Catholic polka dancers. Although Oktoberfest, on which most of our Americanized German festivals are based, was invented in Bavaria – to celebrate the wedding of King Ludwig and Princess Theresa- not all Germans act or eat like Bavarians.
The Cincinnati brats we eat at local Oktoberfests are based on the Bavarian weisswurst. The lager beer we drink is Bavarian. But the Germanic kingdoms have a far more diverse palate that what we see a these festivals.
My father’s family, for example, is from northern Mecklenburg, Germany, near the Baltic coast. They came to Cincinnati in 1855, forming a Mecklenburg, Lutheran, chain-immigrant enclave in Cumminsville/Northside. Herring and saltwater fish dominated the menu of their homeland. That tradition lasted three generations in my family. Eating pickled herring on New Year’s Eve was considered good luck. Uncle Howard and Aunt Dee served three types of herring on the holiday gnosh-spread at their Christmas gathering – a brown smoked herring spread, a red creamed herring spread that was either beet flavored or lingonberry flavored (I can only remember the color), and then the traditional chunked, pickled herring, known in Germany as matjes. When I visited Penzlin, the town in Mecklenburg where my family originated, and took my Woellert cousins out to dinner at Zum Punschendorper, I had some of the best fish I’ve ever had. It was served grilled and whole, tail and head.
The three types of herring dip served at North German fish chain, Nordsee.
A dish called sahnenherring, or herring in cream sauce (usually dill, sour cream, and mayonnaise) is still the most popular form of herring in Mecklenburg. A local seafood chain in northern Germany, called Nordsee, was founded in 1896 to supply seafood from the North Sea to residents of Bremen. They began chaining in 1964 and are still very popular throught Northern Germany. They serve the three types of herring salad that my family served at holiday gatherings. I visited a city location in Wolfenbuttel several years ago and it’s an amazing operation.
And lager beer was not as prevalent in Meckleburg as schnapps or hard cider was. Another family recipe that unfortunately has been lost, was my Grandfather’s eierlikor or eggnog, that he made at Christmas. It was thicker than modern store eggnog, and sipped, and would have been made with brandy or schnapps, rather than today’s spiked with bourbon or whiskey. My father’s family did adapt and drank Bruckmann’s Thuringian-style lager beers, which was owned by their friend, fellow Cumminsville Turnverein member and Lutheran parishioner, and was just a walk across the Mill Creek from their home and frame shop.
Today our German-Cincinnatian foods from pastries to sausages are a mish-mosh of foods from different regions of Germany. In densely packed German Over-the-Rhine, the West End, and Covington, Kentucky, butchers and bakers had to adapt their offerings to Germans from all over the kingdoms of Germanic central Europe. Even goetta, is an adapted mish-mosh of Germanic grain or slaughter sausages like Knipp, panhas, jeternice, and a family tree of similar dishes.
A 1915 ad in a Cincinnati German newspaper for a northern Kentucky German meat market.
In a very broad sense – here’s how Germans ate regionally during the largest period of their immigration: Southern Germans from states like Swabia, Baden and Bavaria ate dumplings and noodles, representing a class of foods called mehlspeisen (flour foods), as their main caloric source. Northerners relied more on potatoes, beans, split peas and lentels. Northerners used pork fat, while southerners used butter for cooking. Northerners (like my ancestors) ate large amounts of saltwater fish, while southerners used freshwater species like pike and carp.
Each city produced its own local sausage. Bavaria had weisswurt (white sausage), like our Cincinnati brat. Swabians had blutwurst or blood sausage, and beutelwurst, which in Cincinnati became Johnny-in-the-bag. Saxons had rotwurst (red sausage), which morphed into our Cincinnati Mett. Residents of Frankfurt in Hesse had a local sausage, Frankfurter wurst, which became our American hot dog.
Dresden was the city of stollen, Berlin was a city of jelly filled doughnuts, and Nuremburg made gingerbread. And, while beer is certainly the national beverage of Germany, they also enjoyed cider, Badeners drank more wine, and northerners (the land of Jaegermeister) preferred a local schnapps.
Thankfully we do have some local German-inspired dishes that are not Bavarian – our hot slaw is more Northern German, and our goetta has a more Westphalian, and Northern German root. So, when you eat to your fill at any of the many local Oktoberfests this season, know that you are eating like a Bavarian, not necessarily ‘like a German.’