Cultural Differences: Allergy Edition

Back in the U.S., it is not uncommon to hear about people with a dairy allergy, or a sensitivity to gluten, or about how you can’t send peanut butter sandwiches to school because someone in the class might be allergic to nuts. It was reassuring, then, to hear from my midwife her recommendation that breastfeeding mothers eat any and all foods without regard to potential allergies: no need to limit dairy or to avoid gluten, as these allergies are just not that common in Germany.

During a conversation with Herr R about the dietary restrictions of dinner guests, I asked if there were any vegetarians in the group of 12 that we were planning to cook for. His answer? “No, they’re German.”
Hilarious, not only because he was correct (there weren’t any voluntary vegetarians,) but because I was not ridiculous for having asked: one of the guests was allergic to protein! As in, eats only vegetables and fruits, can’t even have normal pasta or dairy because it has too much protein! She said that she was diagnosed when she was a few days old, and it hasn’t stopped her from being a Bundesliga-level rower. Props to her, I say, because protein is high on my lists of favorite foods and she doesn’t know what bacon tastes like! Or ham! Or a gall durned quesadilla!
It got me to thinkin’ about other allergies that made-in-Germany friends have:
-pork (only in Germany, eating pork in other countries is fine)
-apples (multiple people)
-seafood (an aversion, not an allergy)
-chicken (this was a dog, not a person*)

Maybe because it’s new to me, the idea of being allergic to one specific kind of meat, or the idea that an allergy to apples is common, is surprising to the point of unbelievability. My feelings on the matter were reflected in the look on the midwife’s face when she addressed the concern that a baby might be allergic to breastmilk. While her words were saying, ‘don’t be too concerned about that’, her face was saying, ‘I’m not laughing at you, I’m laughing… well, yeah, I guess I’m just laughing in your general direction.’

*what do you say to that?! Nothing, that’s what.


We just got back from a surprise baby shower that Herr R has known about for weeks. Complete with games, a diaper cake, and a baby-shaped real cake, it was exactly what I would have hoped for in a baby shower if I’d known one was coming. As a surprise, it was pretty much the best ever. It’s almost criminal, though, that the most baby-shower-appropriate food I’ve ever made was sitting back home in the fridge the whole time: pink-and-green-striped buttermints. I got the recipe from the Land-O-Lakes website, and I made a double batch. They turned out better than expected, and now in a big tin in the fridge there are layers upon tempting layers of cute little confections that are both buttery (yum) and minty (also yum.) Thank god the clementines are so sweet and delicious right now; they certainly ease the transition back to real food.
Note: if you’re going to make buttermints, I would recommend planning on at least an additional box/bag of powdered sugar to work into them as you knead the dough (otherwise it’s a sticky mess), and I would heartily recommend having a destination for the finished product other than your refrigerator.

In baby news, at 36 weeks we are still able to tie our own shoes and to attend our favorite football club’s games. Herr R and I went to a mid-afternoon game today and had the traditional bratwurst-and-mustard-and-roll snack before the game. Also on offer at the stadium: fischbrotchen – a nice crusty roll with fried or pickled or mayonaised fish. These are often quite good, and the vendor at the stadium was kept busy, but there’s something about a lukewarm fish sandwich that just doesn’t scream ‘sporting event’ to me.

Between the buttermints and the candy canes and the caramels, we have waaaayyyyy too much candy in the house, and I still want to make pfeffernusse cookies and gingersnaps and fruitcake. Since it’s too late to offload it on the nice people who organized and attended the world’s sweetest and most thoughful baby shower today, I think that the next best thing is to start my own tradition of taking candy plates around to the neighbors. Because Hanukkah doesn’t start until December 20th this year (and because I should know more about it than ‘festival of lights’ if I’m going to even pretend-celebrate it by forcing sweets on relative strangers,) these plates will be given in honor of the Dutch SinterKlass, who arrived in Hamburg Harbor today.

A very happy Sinterklaas Arrival to all, and to all a good night.

p.s. you know how people get all frothy about putting the Christ in Christmas? Here in the land of ignoring-the-possibility-of-anyone-not-celebrating-Christmas, the religion part is so assumed it’s a non-issue. That makes the holiday window displays at this schmuck store even funnier:
-the name of the jewelry (schmuck in Deutsch) store is CHRIST
-their downtown holiday window displays exhort you to Put the CHRIST in Christmas!!!!!
-there is no mention of the Jesus-Christ-Lord-Savior anywhere. Unless he is, like Prince, going by a symbol these days, and unless that symbol is a diamond pendant.

I Think She Likes It

Because eating and swimming don’t mix, this post is not about food.

Herr R and I tried out a different community pool the other day. It was exceptional for the following reasons:
• On one side of the building there is a heated outside lap pool and a wave pool inside for big kids. On the other side there are two big thermal pools and a cool plunge pool. Your options are totally covered; the separation of high-energy (lap and wave) and low-energy (thermal) pools is brilliant both in terms of ambient temperature and ambient noise
• It has beautifully tiled and mirrored cathedral ceilings above the large thermal pools
• It has a strict ‘no laughing at the pregnant lady as she slowly waddles towards the lap pool wearing a bikini, a 34-week fetus, goggles and a racing cap’ policy
• There happened to be pregnancy water aerobics classes while we were there, and they were happy to let me join in.
The water aerobics teacher didn’t speak English, but mimed the exercises very well. We started with jogging and fist pumps in the air and high knees and frog jumps and tiptoe-like-a-ballerina and all sorts of other moves that felt absolutely wonderfully freeing. Then we went to the cold plunge pool, then back in the thermal pool for what was the best 10 minutes of my week:
With one floaty behind my knees, and one behind my neck, I could float without any effort whatsoever. After a few minutes to get nice and relaxed and to notice the cool ceilings, the music came on: beautiful classical music, played underwater. So there I was, drifting and blissed out in the water, watching the reflection in the ceiling mirrors of my hugely floating belly and the funny shadows and bumps in it that came with Smidgen playing one-babe-mosh-pit roughly in time with the music. Apparently she thinks that classical music ROCKS!

In case you’re interested, the pool also offers a gazillion different saunas and something that I cannot resist calling the Friday Night Special: between the hours of 8 and 11pm on, you guessed it, Friday evening, the lights are turned down, the music comes on, and the candles are lit for a romantic evening of bathing at the public pool. Someday, after many more weeks and months of living in Germany, this will seem normal to me. In the meantime, I’m fine with getting all super relaxed during pregnancy class but getting that relaxed on a Friday night with lots of other people at the public pool seems freaking weird. Turns out I’m a prude. A pruny prude.

Cultural Differences, Bribery Edition

This morning, Herr R and I were discussing the list of things that we needed to get done before the babe arrives. We checked ‘improve the lighting in the kitchen to near-absurd brilliance to support Betsy’s ability to find specks of foreign matter on freshly-washed wine glasses’ off the list, and moved on to deciding what sort of treats are most appropriate to bring with you to the labor and delivery ward.

I suggested individually wrapped homemade caramels, because they are tasty, they keep well, and they are easy to transport.
Herr R said that he’d check the local takeout places to see what was on offer.
I said that maybe caramels weren’t a great idea, since we wanted our caretakers at the hospital to be calm and patient rather than tweaked out on sugar bombs. How about individually wrapped homemade granola bars? Maybe with some coconut?
Herr R said maybe some pizza? The Hawaiian kind, with pineapple?
That’s when I realized that we had skipped several key steps in our decision-making process, namely those that involved addressing the following:

• Should the treats be something that can be safely stored for a few days in a pre-packed overnight bag?
• How much of a hassle should the treats be? Should they:
-Be prepared ahead of time, but with enough loving care to indicate that they are a thoughtful token of gratitude? OR
-Involve a stop on the way from home to hospital, sometime between the water breaking and the baby’s arrival?
• Who are the treats for? Hospital staff or Herr R or Betsy? (note: Betsy won’t be able to eat during delivery, and she probably won’t appreciate watching Herr R eat a fucking pizza while she gives birth.)

I was giving Herr R a hard time about stuffing a Hawaiian pizza into the overnight bag during the mad rush from home to hospital. After a minute, though, I realized that I had been imagining what I might like if I were a night-shift nurse, and he was, too. Pizza is pretty good all the time, but it’s espeically good when you’re busy and crabby and tired and someone surprises you with it. We still need to find a less greasy middle ground, but the conversation and resultant contemplation has cleared up at least one thing for me: no night shift worker alive is going to get all that excited about a homemade granola bar.

Do you know what the common fable is for the arrival of babies in Germany? They are brought by a stork! How in the hell is this theme universal? Oh. I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again: if we can all use the same laughably bogus story to avoid teaching our children about how babies are made, why can’t we agree on the shape of an electrical outlet?!

p.s. after this discussion, I can’t get this image out of my head: Santa arriving on my rooftop with, over his shoulder, an enourmous red sack of slightly drippy frozen chili. Surprise, kids! Santa brought dinner!


Here’s the view out the window of the apartment:

Old Building, Cobblestones, Bank, Cafe, Store with a Star Sign...

Old Building, Cobblestones, Bank, Cafe, Store with a Star Sign...

Let’s take a closer look:
Stern Aphoteke (Star Apothecary): home of Japanisch Heilpflanzenöl

Stern Aphoteke (Star Apothecary): home of Japanisch Heilpflanzenöl

Do you know what Japanisch Heilpflanzenöl is made of? 100% pure, food-grade peppermint oil. All this time, peppermint has been right under my nose (where, according to the German pharmacy’s package insert, it should be doing wonders for my nasal congestion and overall energy levels.)

I think you know what comes next:

Oddly Yellow, Slightly Sticky Candy Canes!!

Oddly Yellow, Slightly Sticky Candy Canes!!

There, that’s done. Now I can go work on my rib recipes: that belly in that apron is a bit of a hazard when it comes to 305-degree sugar, but it would be right at home at a BBQ competition!

p.s. If my eyes look a bit swollen, it’s because I did not have enough respect for the torrent of fumes that came off the pan when I added peppermint oil to boiling sugar. Yowza, they were strong!

p.p.s. Super bonus points if you can spot the other entrant in my imaginary BBQ competition. Hint: he’s not wearing an apron, or pants, but he does have the belly…

Dropped Lemons and a Surprise

Well, the peppermint sticks were a disaster. They were neither sticks nor pepperminty. Rather, after substituting lemon extract for peppermint, forgoing what was a crystal-stabilizing key ingredient (lemon juice), and having the evening’s dinner of roast chicken reach temperature at exactly the same time as the sugar mixture, my helpers (Herr R and our friend Enno,) and I had quite the little scurry around the kitchen before our candy turned into one big chalky lump. A hard pile of lemon dust, it was, which would have been pretty perfect for bashing into bits to mix with ice cream or other holiday confectionery except for the lemon part. It tasted like chalky furniture polish.
The good news is that no one burned anything, except for Enno burning his tongue and my God man I warned you about that like a billion times.

The failed candy-making wasn’t a huge surprise, and I’ll try another batch today after a trip to the serious, farther-than-walking-distance grocery store, and the kitchen is already cleaned up with no sticky spots anywhere, so let’s move on to more fun types of surprises.

We went to visit Herr R’s parents last weekend, and on the first morning I woke up and went to the kitchen. There I found Herr R’s mum getting breakfast ready while munching on a nice cold bowl of sauerkraut. She apologized, and I laughed and asked if I could have some. I love sauerkraut, but had never eaten it cold and it had certainly never occured to me to eat it first thing in the morning. Hers was very fresh, so the cabbage was still crispy, and was the perfect balance of zingy and crunchy and sweet. She gets it from the same local farmer who she buys her sausage from (the farmer raises the food for the pigs, raises the pigs, and makes from them beautiful dry, smoked sausages that are everything a dry, smoked sausage should be.) She keeps it in a pot in the fridge and refills the pot when she goes to the sausage maker. This fresh sauerkraut is just cabbage and salt, with no caraway or bay or onion added. Her Polish housekeeper suggested adding whole coriander seeds to the fresh kraut if it were going to be eaten cold because coriander is good for the digestion. Stroke of genius: the seeds soften a bit after a day in the sauerkraut, and are fresh, herby, and still a little crunchy. Dynamite.
You know how every once in a while you eat a carrot or some squash or a beet and it tastes surprisingly good and feels like it’s zooming through you right to your cells? Like it’s going to light you up and make you more colorful than you were before you ate it? Like you must have been deficient in every vitamin it contains, and now you’re back, baby, and ready to remember to eat it more often in the future? Cold, coriander-spiked sauerkraut for breakfast was like that for me last week. Even though I felt fine before I ate it, it cured what ailed me and I’ve been feeling superfine since then.
Besides the yumminess and the positive health effects of the sauerkraut surprise, I love that eating it in the kitchen before anyone else wakes up is exactly the kind of food wierdness that I expect from my family. Adding coriander to the mix reminds me of Doris, the woman who took care of us and our meals when we lived in Peru in the 1980’s. She told Dad not to eat fish when he had a scraped knee (or any other open wound,) and whoa she was right.
I know that the pregnancy hormones are kicking in, and I’m a little stuck on food as it is, but damned if some cold sauerkraut with my mother in law in the morning doesn’t make Germany feel a lot more like home.

Sometimes Things Get Complicated

Do you know why there is no peppermint stick ice cream in Germany?
Because there are no peppermint sticks! No starlight mints, no candy canes, none of the novelty-sized 2-foot-long peppermint logs that get packed, post-Christmas, into cardboard boxes along with the tinsel and the lights.
I clued into this after visiting three grocery stores that had astonishingly varied displays of Toffifee and Ritter Sport instead of candy canes. I asked Herr R where I should get candy canes, and he was puzzled. To wit:
Me: I’m going to need a kilo of white chocolate to make peppermint bark!
Herr R: It’s okay to eat a little sugar every day, but…
Me: I’m going to make it and it’s going to be delicious! It will be so Christmassy!
Herr R: What do you mean?
Me: Like peppermint stick ice cream but harder!
Herr R: Like what?
Me: Peppermint stick ice cream. With the hard red and white peppermint candies crushed into it.
Herr R: I don’t know these.
Me: Surely there is some confusion. The round, white, pepperminty candies with red streaks that are crunchy and about this big?
Herr R: I only know soft mints.
Me: Or the pepperminty crunchy sticks of white candy with the red swirl and the hook at the end?
Herr R: I don’t know those.
Me: They are hard and white and crunchy and pepperminty and they are everywhere at Christmas.
Herr R: I think you mean After Eight Mints.

And to think that there are hundreds, nay, thousands, of sticky, lint-covered, partially-licked-down-to-the-white peppermint sticks discarded every year.

After some early holiday-season success with homemade caramels (complete with self-made corn syrup replacer,) coming fresh off a terrific five-hour cooking class, and with a slight overconfidence about my ability to find peppermint extract and appropriate food colorings, I hereby announce to you, Germany, that I am about to get all Martha Stewart on your ass. By trying to learn how to pull sugar into peppermint sticks my damn self. Be warned.

Note: the next entry may well be a cry for care packages containing both commercially produced peppermint sticks and burn salve.

Man Can Cook!

Last night, Herr R sequestered himself in the kitchen while I was on a work-related conference call. When I was finished, he presented the most incredible fondue I have ever eaten: flavorful, creamy and complex, with a perfect balance of sharpness and nuttiness. It was ridiculously perfect, from the size and chewiness of the bread cubes, to the sweet/sour cornichons, down to the disk of crispy cheese he pried off the bottom of the pot for the grand finale. I knew that we had a fondue pot in the house, but was still amazed that I’ve known the man for years (multiple years!) and didn’t know that he was such the fondue-maker: when I asked him where he got the excellent recipe, he said that it was in his head.
It makes me want to hold him upside down and shake him to see what other good stuff falls out.

Here are a few of his secrets*:
(*secrets no longer, these will now be called ‘tricks’)
• Add very dry, sharp even, white wine in two stages, with the second round just before the end
• Use garlic: some rubbed on the inside of the fondue pot, and some pressed and added with the cheese
• Don’t forget to add a little Kirschwasser (a.k.a. cherry water, except that by ‘water’ we mean ‘brandy’)
• Don’t dip the bread in Kirschwasser before dipping it in the finished fondue unless you are trying to get drunk, otherwise please do
• Add a few tablespoons of cornstarch (or other starch) at the very end so that everything comes together smoothly, don’t worry about the starch getting lumpy: it won’t
• Use sharp cheese, not bland cheese. He recommends not using Gruyere in favor of a more piquant version called (Schwartzgruyere or something that I didn’t quite catch. Oh, that’s a huge help, isn’t it? Sorry!)

Here’s a good basic recipe from Epicurious. In addition to hunks of good French bread and small cornichons, we ate it with plain baked butternut squash, some very good ripe pear, and apple juice to drink. I wish that I could have it again for dinner tonight! And tomorrow! And on and on until I pop!

Tonight, I am going to take a cooking class. For four hours! In German! Wish me luck. Here’s the stuff we’re going to learn how to cook. Please note that the name of the menu is “Wildküche”!
Hasenrückenfilet mit Feigen und Anis im Filoblatt
Kleines Wildschweinsugo mit Gnocchi
Kurzgebratenes vom Reh mit Rotkohl und Kartoffelknödel
Topfenmousse mit Zwetschgenröster

My translation:
Rabbit with Figs and Anise in Filo
Small Wild Boar Ragu with Gnocchi
Short-Fried Venison with Red Cabbage and Dumplings
Mousse with Roasted Black Plums

The most pressing question: How small IS that wild boar? I am imagining a bristly, tusked beast proudly standing atop a floating gnocchi. This is going to be fun.