This is my first-ever guest post!
I met friend, fellow North American expat, Hamburg resident, photographer and blogger Indeterminacy completely by accident a while back online – a story of a mistakenly sent email that landed in his inbox instead of mine. Since then we’ve enjoyed each other’s company on many an occasion, but I still have to meet his wife and son. Maybe for breakfast one day…
If you’ve ever searched desperately in a foreign country for comfort food from back home, you can relate to this.
I’d been to Germany on vacations, but after moving here in 1987 to live, I was overwhelmed by the culture shock. It was worse at breakfast time, because breakfasts in Germany usually consisted of a slice of bread or a bread roll, with butter and jelly, or a slice of smoked ham (which I never liked). That was it. No scrambled eggs. No bacon. No hash browns. No pork sausages. No pancakes. And only three types of cereals. The best you could hope for was a soft boiled egg with your bread. Since I was staying with friends those first months, there wasn’t much I could do about it, except slowly starve to death.
Upon nearer acquaintance with German culture I found that some restaurants sold a hearty “farmer’s lunch”, consisting of a pile of fried potatoes (Bratkartoffeln) with a couple of fried eggs on top of it, and some dices of the meat that is bacon when sliced into strips, which they didn’t do in Germany. But that wasn’t the same. I wanted it for breakfast.
My mind wandered back to my life in America, working in upstate New York and the wonderful pancakes they had for breakfast in the company canteen, with all the syrup you could pour. That was on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Other days they had bacon and eggs and hash browns and sausage. But that was only a memory.
The situation was becoming intolerable. Once I got settled in, I began improvising breakfasts the best I could. French toast with powdered sugar, or scrambled eggs with half-inch slabs of bacon, which was about as thin as I could slice the even thicker slabs that were the standard fare in grocery stores.
One time I tried buying bacon directly from the butcher and asking him to slice it as thin as possible. But even that was too thick. I asked him if he could slice it thinner, and he took the slice, pounded it flat with a meat hammer, and handed it back to me.
This was going nowhere, and I was beginning to lose my cultural identity. Here I was trying to survive in a foreign country with foreign breakfasts, nothing but my ideals of all men are created equal and the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, especially at the breakfast table, to sustain me. But I did not know how to make pancakes.
This was in the days before the Internet, so I couldn’t blog about it, nor could I just google up a pancake recipe. It was my mother, that great American icon, who finally saved me by shipping off The New Pillsbury Family Cookbook – 400 pages of home, rescue and refuge in a foreign country.
Then I started making pancakes. This is the recipe:
2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup oil
1 3/4 cups unsifted Pillsbury flour (I just use German flour)
2 tablespoons sugar or honey
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon salt
(mix it all up and fry it in butter)
This looks easier than it actually was. Germany didn’t have measuring cups in the English system, and those handy spoon sets from quarter teaspoons to tablespoons and a half were unknown. And no one could tell me what baking soda was. A little research and I was able to work out that one cup is 237 ml, and I found someone who told me where baking soda could be had – from pharmacies. The standard brand was “Kaiser Natron” a teaspoon with a glass of water for upset stomaches.
So now I had everything, except maple syrup. There are no half-gallon bottles of Log Cabin, and no Aunt Jemima. No maple syrup at all. I went to the tiny grocery store in the town I lived and found something that seemed like syrup. It had “Syrup” on the package, but was more like a fluid molasses, some kind of sweet syrup made from turnips. It was awful, especially on pancakes. Eventually I found that little known store in Germany called the Reformhaus. They’re very expensive, never advertise, and nobody seems to really know they exist, so I don’t know how they manage to stay in business, but there they are. They sell health foods for special diets and among their selection is 100% pure maple syrup from Canada in tiny 250 ml bottles. They cost something like 8 DM back then – a little less 4 euros.
Now I was in a position to make my own authentic pancakes. Germany has changed much since the 1980’s. There are more large-scale supermarkets that carry everything you need to make pancakes – they even sell measuring cups from Corning, with the measures in the English and metric systems. And once a year Aldi, the discount market, carries 100% pure Canadian maple syrup. I buy a crate. I won’t touch that artificial stuff anymore, although I could get it Wal-Mart if I wanted to.
Nowadays I am not a bachelor anymore, and my darling muse cooks better than I do, but on weekends it has become a tradition in our household that I whip up a batch of the best pancakes in Germany. My son’s been eating them ever since he could eat. I only have to ask him what he wants for breakfast, and he’ll answer “pancakes” – one of the few English words he’ll use.