Monday, June 30, 2014

The Family Table

Hunsruck garden at Roscheider Hof Open Air Museum


Mauseohr Plant


When I decided to write a novel about peasant life in a small village in the Saarburg region, I didn't expect to have trouble describing food. It didn't occur to me that I would have to figure out what might be on the table for each meal of the day and how it was prepared. What did the cupboards, pots and kettles hold? As it turned out, preparing the daily meals was one of the most difficult of daily tasks about which to find information. Recipes were an oral process, passed on from generation to generation.  Although I grew up on a small dairy farm, conditions in the United States in the 1950s bore little similariety to those in 1850 Kreis Saarburg, the year my ancestors lived on their farms. There was meat on our table almost every day, there were recipe books, there were grocery stores, and our garden was just a few steps from the back door.

How different it was for our ancestors. Meat, so much a part of our daily diet was a rarity for the peasant farmer. It was seldom seen when the family sat down to their daily meal. For the Kleinbauer (small farmer) and Taglohner (day worker), there would only be such a luxury on very special holidays such as Christmas and Easter. For the farmer who was a bit better off, meat might be eaten on other holidays or for an important celebration such as a wedding or a reunion of more distant relatives.  Pork or goose was usually served on those occasions - any leftover meat could be chopped and added to dishes that were usually meatless.

Other than holidays and weddings, what was on the table on ordinary days? As one book put it "It was the duty of the married woman to take care of the house, to look after the children, to help with work in the field, to milk the cow and feed the small animals each day. In addition she was responsible for putting three meals a day on the table for the hungry mouths of her family. This could be the most difficult obligation of all, especially because most farms were small, the farmers poor, and crop failures common." How did the Hausfrau manage to feed a hungry, hardworking family?

Even though meat was rarely seen on the table, animals provided food in other ways. Geese might end up in roasting pans at Christmas; but before that happened, they produced eggs for main dishes when cooked, one of the ingredients in a kettle with many other parts or in a dough to be baked, when raw.

Peasant farmers with land of their own would own one or more cows since farmers rarely had horses for field work. They used their cows as draft animals to pull wagons and plows. At the same time, the cows provided valuable food while working the fields. There was milk for the cooking kettle, baking pan and the drinking mug. (Bit of trivia - in Germany mugs used for daily meals had no handles until the late 1800s).  Given their use as draft animals to pull plows and wagons, a cow's milk production would be much more limited than the dairy cows of today's farmer, but even so, milk was one of the most valuable of foods. Cow's milk provided a nutritious drink, cream for baking, or was mixed with vinegar and sugar (honey was the poor man's sugar) and used as a dressing for fresh greens. What was left after a day's use became a homemade cheese.

In the book "Essens-Zeiten" which can be translated as "Of EatingTimes," one hundred years of table scenes are pictured and explained. In the text for one of those pictures I found several paragraphs that summarize the work of a peasant woman who was also responsible for growing, gathering, preserving and preparing the food from the garden as well as knowing how to supplement it with wild greens and berries from the woodlands and fruit from the trees of the village apple orchard or the plum, pear, and peach trees that were part of some farms. The mild climate also meant that grape vines grew easily.

The garden was the place where the farmer's family turned in good times and bad. Field harvest times when the wife's help was needed in the fields was also the time that the produce of the garden was ripening. The children and those older relatives who no longer could labor in the farm fields were still able to work in the garden and teach the younger children how to plant, hoe, weed, and gather produce. Often the elderly grandmother and grandfather, with the help of the children, were responsible for the majority of the garden work.

Contrary to my American perception, the Kreis Saarburg gardens were not always close to the barnhouse. It might be a mile or more walk to care for and gather this food. Getting to and from the garden took time away from the other work that had to be done. Those lucky enough to have their garden on the barnhouse property would place it on the sunny side of the house. A good location was a matter of concern. The first land that a day worker or craftsman would buy, when he earned enough money to own a piece property, was chosen with the understanding that there must be a good place for a garden which would hold plants that could be wintered: cabbage, bush beans, turnips, carrots, onions, leeks, peas, and lentils. Every little corner of the garden was used.  Potatoes were not planted in the garden; they were a field crop, feeding both humans and animals.

The planting and harvesting of root vegetables from the garden saved many families during famine years. In 1790, according to one writer of the time, in Germany the potato was eaten every day in some kind of recipe. Even the poor had their daily potatoes, some with a bit of meat and most without. Steckruben or turnips were another staple, especially in the Eifel region of the Rhineland. In the book "Essens Zeiten which I mentioned above, an elderly resident says "Oh my, turnips, always turnips" for the meals.  Often all the peasants had to sustain them were potatoes or turnips. Soup was made with some flour, water, broth, and salt. Other root vegetables that saw families through harsh winters were beets, and carrots.

Herbs for seasoning and healing plants were common in the gardens. Even though space for growing food was of primary importance, most village families understood that ornamental plants like wallflowers, pansies, larkspur and field roses should be planted for the color and happiness they brought and planted those as well to have something for the soul.

Although it may seem that our ancestors in the Rhineland area had very poor nutrition, they did their best to vary their diets when spring and summer arrived. After a long winter of only root vegetables, it must have been a delight for them to have freshly picked food on the table. There were just-gathered vegetables, greens, and fruit in those summer months. It seems they were also somewhat aware of the health value of uncooked field greens because, as one book told me, they believed the dandelion leaves helped to fight off the fatigue of winter. The best months for gathering dandelion greens were April and May. One picked the dandelion if possible in the outermost edges of meadows, being sure that the heart of the plant was still looking yellowish. The taste of the leaves is somewhat bitter but savory in much the way radicchio is in our own summer salads. The leaves of certain other field plants added additional taste and volume to the spring and summer season's dinner. Another popular field green was the Mauseohrsalad (mouse ear salad), also called field salad.  It is still eaten in Germany today.

As soon as they were able, the children took on a share of the work. The girls learned how to cook at an early age by "doing." Recipe books would have been laughed at and they were far off in the future. These women and girls knew when they had added enough water or stirred the batter long enough to have it "look right."  Most cooks measured with their eyes, not with measuring cups.

Sugar was not readily available to peasant farmers but honey was. When a villager was in possession of a woven basket and some broom flower branches as a cover, he possessed his very own sugar factory. A bee shed could be made by pushing four long stakes into the ground, and a slanted roof covered with Ginster (yellow broom) placed on top; woven straw baskets were used as hives underneath. Broom grows wild all over Kreis Saarburg to a height of 3 to 5 feet and produces numerous long, straight, slender bright green branches, tough and very flexible. The bright yellow fragrant flowers are large, in bloom from April to July, attracting the bees.

Some Popular Recipes for the Tables of Kreis Saarburg 
(The dialect recipe's name comes first; then the more common German name)

I found these recipes in the book "Die Hunsrücker Küche" by Christiane Becker who inherited them from her grandmother. The book uses many dialect words in the instructions so I have done my best to give you an idea of the dish, at least listing the ingredients in popular recipes of the Hunsrück and Saar Valley of Kreis Saarburg.

Dibbelabbes or Schales (potato dish) This is a traditional dish of potatoes and onions in both the Saarland and the Rhineland. Dibbelabbes made of 4 lbs of potato, two or three eggs, salt, pepper, a tablespoon of flour, 3-4 onions and bacon striped with fat. Nadia Hassani (in her cookbook "Spoonfuls of Germany") has this piece of information on the origin of this interesting dish: "...a potato dish known as Dibbelabbes in Saarland is known as Schales or Scholet in the Rhineland Palatinate. Its origin she says, goes back to the Jewish Sabbath dish Cholent, a stew that was prepared on a Friday and remained on the stove during the Sabbath, when Jewish religious law forbids food preparation."  This was a recipe that held well and could also be taken to the field for a noon lunch.

Löwenzahn Salat (Dandelion Salad) was made using some sour milk, 2 hard boiled eggs, one small onion, one bunch of chives, 6 tablespoons of vinegar, 3 of cooking oil, and be sprinkled with salt, pepper and grated garlic.

Mauseohr salat (Mouse ear field salad, )  Field greens, often those shaped like mouse ears with a dressing of sour cream, salt, pepper, one onion, a bunch of chive, six tablespoons of vinegar and 3 tablespons of oil.

Kappessupp or Kohlsuppe (cabbage soup) The first ingredient was a legume, like peas or beans or lentils, cooked for one and a half hours and then set aside. Then green cabbage was cut in small strips and cooked in meat broth with peeled potatoes. Meat was added only for a special day or if the work of the day was to be very strenuous. The mixtures of the legumes and cabbage together in soup was a typical midday meal.

Rappsupp (No translation from dialect found) This soup could be made quickly and could be found on the table when the women of the house were helping with the harvest or on a busy washday. Vegetable or meat broth was cooked with finely grated raw potatoes and cream or egg yolk. Rapp is one of the dialect words no dictionary or Google translator could define.

Käsjer, Quark or Handkäse (homemade cheese)  The cows' milk could be used as a light cream, skimmed for the rest of the liquid, and used to make butter, a sauce for the fresh greens or an whipped cream for desserts. The rest of the milk, minus the cream that had been skimmed could be used to made hand cheese or Quark by separating the thickening milk from the whey. Both were used to feed the family. Quark, when finished, is a soft cheese that tastes like a mix of cream cheese, cottage cheese and sour cream. Since it's very mild, it takes on the flavors of the other ingredients you use it with and can be either sweet or savory.  The Molke or whey was a drink full of vitamins and minerals and could be compared to drinking buttermilk.

Leckschmier, Zwetschgenmus or Latwerge (plum or pear preserves)
.  I needed some translation help for this Hunsrück and Saar favorite   One recipe in English on the web called for 5 kg plums or pears; 1 kg sugar; cinnamon; anis; pounded cloves; and a little ginger.  The washed, pitted fruits are gradually added in a cast-iron pot and boiled together with the spices. It is important that mass with a wooden spoon to stir constantly to the bottom of the pot so that the Leckschmier does not burn. After 4-5 hours of cooking, the mass has become stiff and thick. It is filled in a well pre-heated stone pot after cooling, with a cloth cover and stored in a cool place. On freshly baked bread, thick coated with good butter, Leckschmier tastes especially good.

Einsäuern im Spezialgärtopf was a version of what we know as Sauerkraut.  It was and is common in the United States and recipes abound on the internet so I have not included the ingredients.  Crocks of this long lasting sour cabbage could be found in the barnhouse each winter.

Gefillte Krummbeere or Gefüllte Kartoffeln (Potato Pancakes) One recipe that made its way from the Rhineland to my family's table and is still a favorite is potato pancakes.   My mother never measured anything - I confess I need a recipe to feel secure about the amount of grated potato to be mixed with onion, flour, and egg.   My mother's were always the best.

There are many more recipes in the little cookbook I have been trying to decipher, but I have made a small start at painting a word picture of the family table, and it has been challenging but also enlightening.

If your ancestry is German, do you have a favorite recipe from the family table of yesteryear?

Christiane Becker, Die Hunsrücker Küche, 1992
Jean Morette, Landleben im Jahreslauf, 1983
Freilichtmuseum Roscheider Hof Konz Museum Guide, 2001
"Essens-Zeiten," eifeler Tisch-Szenen aus 100 Jahren 2002