I love looking at cookbooks. Turning the glossy pages and looking at the pictures of the fancy well-crafted and photographed meals is a delight. It inspires me to try new recipes until… I read the actual recipe. Ingredients I do not have or do not know where to buy. Spices I have never really heard of or would only use one time. Is it worth to spend all this money on a one time meal that may not even look half as fancy or taste as good?
I am a home cook. I cook every day. I never stick to more than basic recipes that I enhance on the spot typically only driven based on what I have in the fridge or pantry. Most people love my cooking. At least they say so. They might be just nice.
Dinner is always around the table. Everyone sits down. Phones are put away. Dinner time is for talking, for sharing the day’s accomplishments, or the worries of the next day. You do not skip dinner in my house come flood or high water. You sit down. You grace others with your presence. You are there in that specific moment and you share your time.
I would love to say all my cooking is self-taught. It is not. I learned the traditional way by spending hours in the kitchen with my grandmother and my mom starting from when I was a small little girl. Too young to yet have long hair to bind in a ponytail. First learning how to peel peas, then potatoes, until my learning ended in how to carve and roast a chicken.
I grew up in a very small town in Northern Germany. The name of the town is Radbruch which translates loosely into “Broken Wheel” but is more a description of the iron rich earth and the moor that surrounds it and the literal translation is just a coincidence. The landscape is flat with long straight roads and few houses. The houses typically are red brick and some old farmhouses even still have the reed covered roofs that used to be typical for the area.
Radbruch is right on the edge of the Lüneburger Heide, the area where life revolves around a landscape that is defined by purple heath and has been portrait in many old German Classic Films like the Hans Deppe interpretation of the famous German Poet Hermann Löns novella “When the Heath is in Bloom”. I am not saying the movie is worth watching, but it creates a little bit of a nostalgic feeling around where I grew up. I know
the locations shown and I feel always sent back in time to when my parents were little. The movie is from 1960 and describes the return of a black sheep son after having fled to the US living a not so successful version of the American Dream. Not sure where my travel desires originated from, but I cannot help to think that some of these old movies and stories played a big role. The painting below is an acrylic interpretation of the Lüneburger Heide’s landscape. Done by me a few years back.
My upbringing itself is different in the sense that my life is following a long story of the German working-class narrative where people live simply, work hard, and play harder. Poverty is a common theme in my family and having investigated our family tree back into the 1500s I can only conclude that we were always this way. Poor working class. No secret riches. No surprising royal identity. We were just there. Working our way through centuries with all the suffering and hardships that comes from a life with less.
This is particularly true, when looking at my mother’s side of the family.
From the 1950s until his death in the 1980s, my grandfather owned a not so successful chicken farm in the same little town I grew up in. He was always trying too hard to be successful, but with no talent of managing money and many shady side adventures, he ended his career as a carnie traveling from county fair to county fair. But that is part of a different story that I can tell later and talk more about how II traveled with him during my summer breaks from school.
What I remember from his chicken farm is the following: Hundreds of chickens running around, laying eggs, and of course being sold and then eaten. For the first few years of my life, chicken for Sunday dinner was a staple. Eggs for breakfast were a must have. Saturdays, we would go to the farmer’s market to sell chickens. This is how I earned my first money, getting tips from happy customers whose freshly slaughtered chicken I wrapped in old newspaper. Yes, wrapping a chicken in an old newspaper is an art form. I mastered it at age 9 watched by the careful eyes of my grandmother who made sure I did it the right way, so that the chicken would stay protected and wrapped when carried home.
The farmer’s market I remember the most is in Lüneburg. This city is old, first mentioned 956 AD and thanks to discovering salt as a natural resource below the ground, the city became famously rich during the Middle Ages. And for anyone traveling through, you can still today admire the old trade houses where the traders and businessmen lived. These houses still exist with their old restored or original facades and frame any major plaza of the city. But like old middle-aged people, these houses now have bulging bellies
and are no longer standing as straight as they once were. Life is slower there in this town, but nothing beats a coffee sitting outside and watching the people go by. On bikes. Walking. Shopping. The photo below shows the Johannesplatz with one of the old churches still standing “St. John” (Johanneskirche) which was built between 1300 and 1370. The picture thereafter shows another street in the city center with residential houses. Yes, people live there. Driving over cobble stone and all.
Lüneburg is well known for the little streets all leading up to the Townhall. A majestic building that oversees the farmer’s market every Wednesday and Saturday. You always arrive in the dark. That is how I remember it and then you start building up your stand in the dark. The first people come shopping at 7am or 8am. I might remember it wrong. All I know it was brutally early. And I yawned more than I talked.
I know the life behind the scenes of the farmer’s market. Who put their stand where. Who sold what. And we would always buy the left-over apples from our neighbor who in return would take a chicken or two. A different kind of quid pro quo.
Farm To Table has become an annoying buzz word for me, because with all the good intent, it never gets close to my childhood experience with my grandparents and what it means to eat seasonal, local, and organic. The farm to table recipes you can find online are almost always too overdone. Not seasonal enough. Ingredients that are not always at hand. And lack the simple spirit of what it truly means to prepare a Sunday dinner from what you grew yourself or bought at the market.
I am a meat and potato kind of girl. Simply because where I grew up, buying rice was the extra expense no one would want to take on considering you could grow your own potatoes in the backyard. The same with pasta. Why buy noodles when you can get potatoes for free? Hard work and effort were nothing my grandmother shied away from. She grew her own vegetables. And no one who has ever spent an entire day
snipping green beans to be frozen and canned, really knows what it means to prepare
for winter. Harvests come as they come. You have mountains of beans when they are ready, and they need to be prepared right then and there or they will turn bad. The same with fruit. My grandmother had shelf after shelf in the basement of canned goods that we would eat all through winter. One of my favorites to this day is pickled plums we would either eat on grits for a sweet lunch or as a desert. With vanilla ice cream instead of grits if it was a special occasion like Christmas day.
Today, it is been a year since my mom died from ALS. Ten years ago, my grandmother died with dementia. From all the above, only the stories remain. How they would teach me simple things in the kitchen. Their first disappointed look when I peeled the skin off the potatoes with a knife and just could not do it in one piece cutting way too deep and wasting too much potato. Traditions and memories are built slowly over time. Often enough you do not even know a tradition has formed until you realize you do the same
thing over and over with the same intent and purpose. Stories are passed on through generations by talking over snipping beans or peeling peas. As a young child, you learn and hear so much by just listening to the older generations. Stories that would otherwise be lost. Who came back from war. How they survived the after-war years by growing their own food. Little stories of how my mom as a little girl let the cat into her room and the cat gave birth to young kittens in her bed. “You never let the cat in”, that is what my grandmother said. I am not sure my mom ever agreed with her.
You learn the role and purpose of animals on a farm. You learn a different circle of life. Rabbits eat the leftovers, so do chickens, and pigs. Cats are on their own. They have a job. They must catch the mice. You learn that you treat animals nicely. You give them names. But that does not mean you do not eat them. Animals have a purpose. They secure your survival. They work for you until they become food.
While I write all of this, I have a chicken roasting in the oven. It is not Sunday. I am doing this to honor my mom and grandmother on this day. To honor their memory. And because I am sitting here missing them and our days in the kitchen. Days I will never get back, but days I do not want to have missed. Memories that mean the world to me and that I can now pass on to my daughter. One more generation to learn the secrets of cooking the old-fashioned way.
I get asked often what to pair a chicken with. I never thought about simple dishes in the form of pairing. Choices like this did not exist in my childhood. We served what was available. Always potatoes, roasted in the oven. In fall I use brussel sprouts as the vegetable of choice; that is the seasonal vegetable in Northern Germany and what my mom liked best. In summer it is either a salad or green asparagus. All potatoes and vegetables are only spiced with butter, salt, and pepper. Nothing else. The chicken is the star.
I like a bold red wine. Like a Malbec. Germans may prefer a white like a Grauburgunder. The good thing is that a roasted chicken is versatile. It goes with everything.
Here is the simplest chicken roast recipe I was taught:
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.
Chicken is washed and padded dry.
Melt butter with salt and pepper and brush the melted butter onto the chicken. Be generous.
The chicken will roast 2 hours breast down (covered with foil or a lid), and 1 hour breast side up uncovered.
The skin will be nice and crispy when done.
Two key rules for maximum chicken enjoyment: You use butter. You always eat the skin — The skin is the best part.