German cooking is not always easy to describe because there are numerous regional specialities and each of the yearly recurring holidays and celebrations comes with its own locally conditioned tastes and smells. Depending on ethnic tradition and family background, Christmas may come with the smell of baked apples, green branches and red and white candles, and with the sounds of church bells or jingle bells. Weeks before the feast days there may begin elaborate preparations. In the past these have involved a great amount of cooking special meats or fish and baking of breads, fancy cakes, baked apples and special cookies.
Many times traditions grew out of a necessity or, in this case, of availability. In the rural days and areas, there may have been venison, if someone was lucky at hunting. If it was cold enough to butcher before Christmas there would be new pork. Butchering a hog was an important and joyous occasion, for there was the prospect of good meat to go along with the usual staple of potatoes, Spätzle (small dumplings) and kraut, and of soup (Metzelsuppe) from the broth you cooked your sausages in. It was also a great occasion for socializing. Butchering required much preparation ahead of time and a lot of work on "Schlachttag," especially with the cutting up and cleaning of the guts. So you had relatives or friends and neighbors who would come and help.
Christmas Eve or Heiliger Abend used to be a fast day in Catholic areas and therefore fish would be served, prepared in many different ways, or a herring salad. For Christmas Day, December 25th, there was liver dumpling soup, followed by a "Bratl" (pork roast). In the middle of the last century the Wiener Schnitzel became a favorite. Cabbage, red or white, and Sauerkraut, available at that time of the year, became a part of the tradition. Beer, Glühwein, and mulled cider were favorite drinks.
While fish is still the Christmas favorite in areas where it is abundant, the goose plays a role as well. "Availability" helped make the goose as Martinsgans and Weihnachtsgans a favorite. The migratory goose became a part of the diet in early times, since it merely needed to be captured upon arrival for food or domestication. Geese were ready for butchering in early November, and from this arose the custom of the Martinsgans on St. Martinsday, Nov. 11.
When the weather wasn't cold enough for hog butchering, the goose was a convenient stand-in. Not only did it provide meat, but also eggs and fat for baking. Gänsefett (goose fat) and crackling, on a slice of bread with a little salt, was a delicacy. The down feathers provided fluffy pillows and warm featherbeds, the quill was needed for writing, and the wing made a good duster. German immigrants had even use for the stubbly part of the feathers by making feather trees for Christmas when a real Tannenbaum was not available.
Eating is part of a dining occasion, which is a symbolic and cultural event. Beyond the mere enjoyment of a meal, eating is a ritual and follows a specified order. While tradition was much more rigidly observed in the past, even today there are specific foods, each of them carrying a deeper meaning. Americans will eat turkey on Thanksgiving, because it is traditionally American, and they will eat it in a predetermined order, and an appropriate context.
Foods hold symbolic meanings. The crossed "arms" of the Pretzel represent a Christian in prayer with forearms crisscrossed and palms on opposite shoulders. The Stollen, the prominent German fruitcake, shaped with tapered ends and a ridge down the center, symbolizes the Baby Jesus in swaddling clothes (Luke 2:7, 12), in which it was customary to wrap newly born children. Adventszopf, the braided loaf of Advent comes with extra fruit and nuts. If on New Year's Day you serve "Kassler (smoked pork chops) mit Sauerkraut," so the saying goes, you will never run out of available cash.
Max Kade German-American Center
FURTHER RESOURCES by Robert Shea
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