A few weeks ago, I chanced to read this article at the Guardian about the history of the premade sandwich. It’s a fascinating article and you should definitely read it. But what struck me was this quote by one Roger Whiteside, head of Marks & Spencer’s sandwich department in the 1980s:
“Once you are time-strapped and you have got cash, the first thing you do is get food made for you […] Who is going to cook unless you are a hobbyist?”
This quote not just made me bristle, it also baffled me. It baffled me as much as the lawyer from New York City whom I met online in the early days of the Internet and who told me that his family never cooks, whereupon I blurted out, “But what do you eat then?”
But cooking is fun, I thought. Sure, eating out is nice and everything, but not all the time. Sometimes, you just want to stay in the comfort of your own kitchen and prepare a delicious meal, whether it’s an old favorite or a new recipe you’ve never tried before. Making something to eat for myself and others brings me joy. Maybe that makes me a hobbyist – and sadly, hobbyist seems to have become an insult by now, which I will never get – but then so be it.
During the trashfire of a year that was 2017, I’ve found that no matter how upset I am, sitting down in the kitchen to prepare a meal inevitably makes me feel better. To me, there is something incredibly soothing about assembling ingredients and spices, chopping vegetables, meat or fish and finally stirring the pot or pan, waiting for it all to come together.
So what sort of food do I make? For starters – and I know that may surprise some – very little traditional German food. German cuisine is too greasy and too meat and salt heavy for my tastes. And here in North Germany, traditional food quite often means “throw everything into a big pot and boil it, until it turns to mush”. There are some German dishes I like and make on occasion – herring salad, North Sea shrimp salad, pea soup, venison stew with red cabbage, sailor’s curry (which is a North German take on South/South East Asian food), apple puree, several cakes and cookies. And I suspect I could make most of the traditional dishes of my region, if necessary. But since I don’t particularly like them, I don’t bother. Part of the reason I started cooking for myself was so I wouldn’t have to eat my Mom’s food, if I didn’t like it. And quite often these were traditional North German dishes such as kale with Pinkel (a type of sausage), lobscouse (a meat stew served with beetroot and gherkins), Knipp (a stew of meat and grits that looks like an undefinable mess) or salted beans (not exactly bad, just extremely salty).
Instead of the meat and potato heavy dishes of North Germany, I love pasta and rice and can make an endless array of different dishes featuring either. I make a lot of vegetarian and even vegan dishes, but I also eat red meat, chicken and fish in moderation. I love spices and condiments. My spice collection fills an entire kitchen cupboard and that’s only the absolutely essential ones (the less frequently used spices reside in the basement). Because I love spices, I also try a lot of international recipes from all over the world.
In several cases, I learned how to cook certain dishes, because I could not find them locally. As a child, I spent almost a year on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and developed a taste for Cajun and Creole food. Neither cuisine can be found in Germany at all, so I taught myself how to make it. During my time as a student in London, a city with a huge range of culinary options, I fell in love with Indian and Caribbean food. Neither was available in Germany at the time (you can find Indian restaurants by now, but Caribbean food remains elusive), so I bought two cheap cookbooks and made my own. The internet has made this a lot easier, by the way, because there are wonderful websites and food blogs for all sorts of cuisines out there.
Sometimes, I also try to recreate a dish I enjoyed a long time ago, but which I haven’t had in some time. One such dish was a tangy and spicy red sauce my Mom used to serve with Kassler (a type of cured pork) in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, the sauce bore the politically incorrect name “gypsy sauce”, nowadays it’s more commonly known as paprika sauce or Hungarian sauce. But whatever the name, it was delicious, so I decided to make it. I even tracked down my Mom’s recipe, which turned out to consist mainly of commercially made sauce with a few chopped pickles and vegetables added. I didn’t want to use the commercially made stuff, because it contains binding agents and artificial flavorings, colorings, etc…, so I began to experiment. It took a few tries, but I got a version I liked in the end.
The quest to recreate the Schillerlocken salad my Mom sometimes made for festive occasions in the 1980s was a lot more difficult and ultimately fruitless. For starters, my Mom no longer had the recipe, so I had to recreate the ingredient list from memory (“I’m pretty sure it involved ketchup. And celeriac. Yes, definitely celeriac.”). But what thwarted me in the end was the fact that the one ingredient I was absolutely sure about – Schillerlocken, a type of smoked fish – had become unavailable in the meantime, because the fish in question, a small shark called spiny dogfish, is endangered. Supposedly, there is a substitute made from a non-endangered species, but I have yet to try it.
Because I like to eat and I like to cook, food also plays a pretty big role in my writing. Just like people, characters have to eat (plus, it gives them something to do to break up stretches of dialogue), so I always give them something good as well as period and location appropriate to eat. Occasionally, research for a story has even given me a new recipe to try out for myself.
Indeed, one of the things that always annoyed me about older science fiction is that the characters never seemed to eat anything except food pills, protein cubes, Soylent Green (which in the novel is not people BTW) and the like. Unless they were aliens, in which case they would eat something slimy and wriggly that would seem foreign to western sensibilities. I always felt this was unrealistic, not to mention a missed opportunity, because food is culture. And in a situation where different cultures come into contact with each other, which describes a lot of science fiction, you would find cases where one culture borrows ingredients or an entire dish from another and adapts it to its own tastes, where unfamiliar or unavailable ingredients are replaced with familiar ones and something new arises. There are plenty of examples for this in the real world – British chicken tikka masala, North German sailor’s curry, Japanese spaghetti naporitan, the Dutch Indonesian rijstfafel and patatje oorlog (“war potatoes”, i.e. fries with satay sauce) – so why are there so few equivalents in fiction?
Unlike writers of e.g. cozy mysteries, I don’t include recipes in my fiction very often. There are only two stories where I have done this. One is The Three Quarters Eaten Dessert, a story in my Alfred and Bertha’s Marvellous Twenty-First Century Life series of mundane slice of life stories told in the style of overly infodumpy vintage science fiction. The other is Freedom’s Horizon, a long novella/short novel in my In Love and War space opera romance series, which will be published early in 2018.
However, since you just read through more than a thousand words of me blathering on about cooking and food, it’s fair to assume that you’ll want a recipe. So here is one, a genuine family recipe, shared for the first time in print. It’s a festive recipe that is traditionally eaten around Christmas and New Year in my family. So I present you:
Grandma Buhlert’s Herring Salad
- 3 whole young salted Matjes herring
- 2 sour apples, preferably Boskoop apples
- 1 kg fresh beetroot
- 1 bulb of celeriac
- 250 g of lean pork
- 3 potatoes (optional. I usually omit them, since they were mainly intended as filler anyway)
- 3 yellow onions
- 3 hardboiled eggs
- Pickled cucumbers
- Pickled capers
- 6 tablespoons of oil
- 6 tablespoons of vinegar
- 2 tablespoons of raspberry juice or raspberry syrup
- 1 tablespoon of mustard
- Salt, pepper and sugar to taste
Peel and boil the beetroot, celeriac (and potatoes) and chop them up. Cook the pork and chop it up, too. Mix salad sauce of oil, vinegar, raspberry juice, mustard, salt, pepper and sugar in a bowl (you’ll need a big bowl) and throw in all the chopped up ingredients. Chop up everything else except for the herring and the eggs (get friends or family members to help, because it is a lot of chopping) and throw it into the bowl as well. Let the salad rest for a few hours, preferably overnight. Just before serving, chop up the herring, boil the eggs and chop them up, too, and add both to the salad.
The salad keeps for several days in the fridge (it will last several days and I have halved the amounts compared to the original recipe) and actually tastes better on the second or third day.