In elementary school one year, my best friend and I started a cooking show at the cafeteria lunch table. We called the show “Poppyseed Bagel,” it was about a chef of the same name, and each installment featured a recipe so absurdly easy, it usually only had three or four steps. Our first, of course, was a recipe for a poppyseed bagel that consisted of the following steps: 1) Cut the poppyseed bagel in half 2) Toast the poppyseed bagel 3) Spread butter on the poppyseed bagel 4) Eat the poppyseed bagel. At the beginning and end of each show, we would sing a little ditty that basically repeated the words “poppyseed bagel” over and over again. We can’t have been more than eight years old. It was a satire, but we can’t have known what that was at the time. We just knew we were really funny, even if no one else did.
I look back on that and see it as unwittingly brilliant. We were sending up a phenomenon that hadn’t even hit the top of the pop culture radar: the reality TV cooking show, or really any show at all about chefs. What’s more, our title for the show was such a perfect encapsulation of that blissful ethnic and cultural milieu that is New York City for children even when they can’t yet appreciate it: here we were, two little girls, one Jewish and one Christian, naming our show after, we thought, the most obvious, most American of breakfast foods. We could not have even imagined that, somewhere out there in the world, there were people who didn’t eat poppyseed bagels every day, and might in fact need to know what to do with them.
I’m not quite sure what brought this up. Maybe it’s because I just spent the last three weeks in New York eating a bagel with lox practically every morning for breakfast, really packing them in as if I could somehow save them for later, draw out the twenty or so bagels I had since November 5th so that they last at least through the New Year. Maybe it’s because my last day in town saw me meeting with that old and dear friend, now a full-blown lawyer just graduated from NYU. Maybe it’s because I’m sitting in my apartment back in Berlin again, with a whole lot of things about to change, yearning for that sense of comfort and familiarity that only food can bring. I stuffed bags of Nestle chocolate chips in the side pockets of my suitcase, stocked up on spices and other kitchen gadgets from Kalustyan’s, managed to forego the token box of brown sugar or bottle of Molasses I usually tuck in among my socks. But bagels are one thing I know won’t last; I can take a bag of them in my carry-on, enough to eat one every day for a month, but unless I can find some friends to devour them with me (and I don’t really want them to), I can’t possibly eat them fast enough to win the race. So I don’t take any, and resign myself to doing without them until my next trip home.
If you ask my husband the one thing that annoys him most about me, I think (hope?) he will name my insatiable ranting over food quality in Berlin. If you’ve talked to me any time in the last couple of years, you might agree with him. Sure, Berlin is good for just about everything (except full-time work, HA!), and there have been enough articles about the “food scene” here lately (including a loving paean to some admittedly very good restaurants by the one and only Frank Bruni) to make one think it’s actually up-and-coming. But really, who are we kidding? The food is abysmal here, and until salaries are higher, people demand better, and Germans give up their all-consuming affliction for wurst and general confusion over what to do with vegetables, I don’t imagine things getting much better. Even when taking into account the Hartmanns and Horvaths and Tim Raues of this city (which you shouldn’t because they are more expensive than most of us can afford), it doesn’t look good. That is due to a few things.
First of all, say what you will about the costs of living in both cities, call me crazy, but I still maintain, until proven otherwise, that you can get a better meal for less money in New York then you can here. “But wait!” I hear you argue. “For a mere 2,50 I can walk down the street and get a Döner Kebab with my toppings and sauces of choice that is so big, I can split it in half and eat one half for a drunk snack now and the other half tomorrow at lunchtime! I can spend 1,20 on a Bratwurst im Brot with mustard, and it’s as good as a meal to me!” Well yes, you can, but do you really want to? More importantly, does your stomach want you to? In New York, every corner deli, café, or shitty little bodega will make you a sandwich with any sliced meats and cheeses you want for less than five dollars. It will also be big enough to split in two unless you are a pig or a marathon runner. Even better, it will consist of fairly healthy and standard ingredients (should you choose them) that won’t make your stomach do back flips only hours later. A slice of classic New York style pizza (there are good and not so good pizzerias, but you’d be hard pressed to find one so horrible you wouldn’t eat there) can cost less than three dollars. Go into any supermarket these days and you’ll find juices that were fresh-squeezed on the premises, as well as so many sodas, ice-teas, and yoghurt drinks, you may take longer to choose among them than to decide what went into your sandwich. Walk into any Spätkauf in Germany and you’ll find…beer and Club Mate. Nothing fresh, nothing healthy, nothing else. I used to have one of those mini cartons of Tropicana orange juice practically every day as a thirst and hunger quencher. I’m not saying that it’s the best orange juice in the world, only that it was there. In Berlin I don’t even think about orange juice when I’m on the go. I know I won’t find it. “But what about the beer?” I hear you say. “Surely the beer is better in Germany?” Well, I’m about to blow your mind again: the beer in New York is better than the beer in Germany now. Everyone and his cousin has started a microbrewery that consistently churns out excellent and varied brews with a level of complexity rivaling that of wine. What’s more, any self-respecting bar that doesn’t have at least one of these on tap (discounting Irish Pubs and local dives, which I hardly need to point out, are probably not self-respecting) will quickly find itself out of business.
Produce is another problem. Germans simply don’t know what to do with it, so it doesn’t become more frequent. Now, I’m sure anyone who really wanted to pick an argument with me would point out the proliferation of farmer’s markets and organic stores in Berlin. Well, organic stores are mostly frequented by head-scarf wearing hippie Prenzlauer Berg stay-at-home mothers with undoubtedly important, high-earning husbands, who can afford to spend six Euro on a box of strawberries, or four Euro on a head of lettuce. Farmer’s markets are another solution to the problem, but they don’t occur frequently enough and aren’t widespread enough for a person with other things on her mind to be able to track them down every day. What’s more, a discerning shopper simply shouldn’t have to spend an obscene amount of money or go market-chasing to be able to find one head of unwilted lettuce that doesn’t taste like crunchy water to make into a decent salad. This is simply not the case. In New York you can assemble a salad with fresh, crisp lettuces of every color and taste, from the brilliant purple of radicchio to the red-veined quirkiness of mustard leaf, to the satisfyingly bizarre prickliness of frisée. Here, I munch away at tasteless romaine lettuce hearts and slightly-too-soft endive, dreaming of better arugula. A few good exceptions abound, such as Turkish grocers, where, ironically, those of the much-maligned, largest immigrant population in Germany prove themselves the only ones able to keep up a decent supply of spinach and fresh herbs, or even to appreciate it. Asian grocers are the only place where you can find Bok Choy. Strangely enough, they are also the only places in town to get many American and British products, such as real brown sugar, as opposed to the absolutely heinous Brauner Zucker that Germans always think you’re referring to when you talk about the essential American baking ingredient, which is in fact raw sugar. I’ve never figured out what to do with that stuff, so if someone has any suggestions, please let me know.
Finally, packaging. Most German dry goods come in either plastic or paper packages, which, once opened, are impossible to close again. Sure, some of these companies, seemingly as a kind of half-hearted middle finger to those of us who actually want to preserve our food, provide supposedly sticky plastic tabs, which one is supposed to use to close the package after opening it. Unfortunately, because the package is so shoddily made in the first place, it rarely opens straight across the top. Most likely, you’ve found yourself struggling with a package of dried beans or pasta, only to have it rip jaggedly down the side, creating a deep cut that simply cannot be mended, and certainly won’t be saved by an unstickable piece of sticky tape. Since your packages will not reseal, this means you either need to use Scotch tape (tried it) or staples (sometimes work but are a waste as you have to restaple each time), or find another vessel altogether for the remainder of your flour (unless you need an entire kilo of flour in that cake you’re baking…and you do, right?). This leads to a proliferation of jars, Tupperware containers, and plastic bags (not Ziploc bags—those are also nearly impossible to find here) with twisty ties—more than you ever thought you would need in your whole life—cluttering up your kitchen. Pretty soon, unless you’ve labeled your jars and have an absolutely astounding amount of cupboard space, you will forget what’s in them, forget where they are, and finding yourself buying something you already have, hidden away somewhere back there. Then the whole process repeats itself.
And don’t even get me started on the aisles and aisles of tasteless cheese (you might as well be eating butter), watery thin yogurt (you might as well just be drinking skim milk) and cardboard boxes of cardboard-tasting cookies (yes, the cookies, not the boxes). Coming back to Berlin from New York and having to go to Aldi or Netto for that first, restocking-the-fridge trip to the supermarket is enough to make you cry. In fact, I once did. Several times I almost did. In most countries I visit, going to the supermarket is an exuberant and fascinating experience; in Germany, it’s an exercise in futility, as the entire visit is absolutely consumed by longing visions of what is not there.
There are a couple of silver linings, though. Today I went to Markthalle Neun, the much-lauded, community-backed effort to transform an old market hall in Kreuzberg into a place where local cooks, farmers, and producers could come to peddle their wares. At the beginning I resisted its charms. Its hipster cache was simply too great, and I didn’t want to get swept up in the praise before I’d had the chance to assess it objectively. Now that I have, I can only say I am impressed, happy, and most of all hopeful. A grand and beautiful interior plays host to a number of stalls and stands that sell everything from cakes and jams to wines and sauces. There’s a truly wonderful, half-hidden little counter that sells three types of tap beer brewed on site: two Pale Ales of varying alcohol levels and one “Saison” which was truly stunning; almost as good, in fact, as my beloved Sixpoint brews in New York. One stand sells fresh fish and another smoked on site (with the smoker sitting right behind the cashier, just so you can see that it’s all real). The best part, though, is that this market hall plays host to themed events, like this weekend, when a side room was filled with local purveyors of Schnapps and liquors—some of the most astonishing flavors and smells in some of the most elegantly designed bottles I’ve seen so far in this city.
Though I’ve always found KaDeWe to be somewhat overrated in all departments, a step down from its hallowed foodie temple status, fine food shops like Frische Paradies (formerly Lindenberg) or Mittemeer, and wholesale shops like Metro are good enough as to almost approximate a visit to a decent New York City grocery store. You pay a premium for the first of course, but their selection of vegetables, fishes, and meats is quite astonishing, even by New York standards, and the second has great Mediterranean products and wines. The third is nearly as large and as good as a Fairway, even if they still don’t sell the Greek yogurt Fage here (only one place does, and infrequently: the Turkish grocer on Hauptstrasse in Schöneberg). Rogacki is in a category of its own; a true German delicatessen that feels the closest you’ll get to homey Jewish grandma cooking.
Berlin may be awash in truly horrific approximations of Asian food, with the worst of the worst being “Asia Box,” a fast-food noodle counter in many U-bahn stations whose boxes of sawdust-flavored greasy strings are so gag-inducing, I actually want to confront people in the middle of their munching to ask what possessed them to go for Asia Box when there was a nice Bratwurst stand right next to it (you know you’re in trouble when Bratwurst is your better option). But right in the middle of Charlottenburg on Kantstrasse between Savignyplatz and Charlottenburg S-bahn station, lies the best approximation of a Chinatown you’re likely to find in the capital. Moon Thai is my favorite of them all, an incredibly cheap but still well-decorated little restaurant that serves dishes on four levels of spice: one chili, two chili, three chili, or “Thai spicy,” which comes with a warning: “not for the undiscerning palate.” After brazenly ordering my first dish Thai spicy, I can attest that, even in a city of people who seem to run from anything with a hint of heat, the warning here is justified and well-earned. Aroma is great for Dim Sum and noodle soups, Selig for noodle soups as well, and there’s a whole slew of restaurants I can’t talk about because I haven’t even tried them yet.
Finally, the ultimate luxury: Berlin allows a lifestyle that leaves me time to cook. Even if I had all the ingredients in the world at hand, I would also have to hold down a (perhaps-thankless) full-time job in New York in order to be able to afford all of them along with the kitchen to cook them in. What’s more, I’d probably find myself barely cooking at all in favor of going out to one of New York’s million and a half spectacular restaurants. It was only in Berlin that I cultivated my love for cooking and baking, and I know the city had something to do with that (getting married and having someone to cook for may have helped as well).
Still, I look back on my days in New York wistfully, because New York had something that Berlin doesn’t: a true appreciation for myriad cultures and ethnicities, and the multi-faceted palate that goes along with that appreciation. I look at the children in Berlin, eating more chocolate and candy than I was ever allowed in my lifetime, eating bread for all three meals perhaps punctuated by a wurst here and there, and I wonder if any of them have it in them to do what we did at the lunch table so many years ago. Perhaps, some time soon, they will. And perhaps their TV show will be called “Butterbrötchen.”