The closest most Americans get to real German food is Oktoberfest-style beer, bratwurst, and pretzels. While those are part of the history of German food, it glosses over the long, rich heritage and diversity of German cuisine. Learning a little bit about German food, what ingredients are important, and why the foods are so unique will help you understand Germany's cultural contributions.
The first thing most people associate with Germany is beer. Though Germans neither invented beer nor were the only ones to produce it in Europe, beer became incredibly important to the German people. Beer was important because in ancient and medieval Germany, drinking water was dangerous; sewage, dead animals, agricultural run-off, and other contaminants allowed the growth of harmful bacteria that caused cholera, dysentery, and other deadly diseases. Boiling beer killed off some of the harmful germs, and the alcohol content finished the job. In 1516, Bavaria passed the "Reinheitsgebot," or beer purity law, which represents one of the first food quality laws in the world.
Wurst literally translates as "sausage" and is an early part of the German effort to store food for later use. In medieval Germany, meat, fat, and spices were stuffed in a casing and smoked; smoking dried the sausage and prevented spoiling. This was important because the long winters in Northern Europe meant that food needed to stay nutritious and edible for months at a time. There are many types of sausage, such as liverwurst, knockwurst, and bratwurst, and each varies by region in Germany.
Butter and Cheese
Roman writers who encountered Germanic people, such as Tacitus, were often derisive of the Germanic love of butter and cheese. Butter and cheese, however, represent another way to preserve calorie-dense food for later consumption. Butter was used for cooking (and occasionally bathing) as well as to make vegetables more palatable. Cheese, on the other hand, was a food-preservation measure; calcium, fat, and protein were stored in relatively spoil-proof cheese wheels for winter consumption.
The humble hazelnut has been a staple of German cuisine for thousands of years. The nuts are dense in calories and were easily incorporated into existing and new German foods. Though not exclusive to Germany (5,000-year-old hazelnut fossils have been found in Syria and China, for example), Germans have nonetheless used the nut in coffee, chocolates, and desserts and even sprinkle it on traditional dishes.
In the 19th century, German immigrants to the United States brought with them their culinary heritage. In 1869, Adolphus Busch and Eberard Anheuser formed the Anheuser-Busch beer company in St. Louis, Missouri. Tomas Dorgan, who could not figure out how to spell "frankfurter" when he was making a cartoon about the new sausage-in-a-roll treat, instead called the treat a "hot dog" because it resembled a Dachshund. Hamburgers, Salisbury steaks, and more flooded the American market in the late 19th century, making German foods a staple in America.
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