While reorganizing my computer files recently, I came across something I wrote in 2005, shortly after returning from a trip to Russia, Germany and Austria with my dad and brother. I dusted it off, reworked it a little and decided to share it here. So much has changed for me personally over the past 12 years and so much has changed in Europe since then. It makes me sad to think about it. But, I’m also grateful for the wonderful memories I have of that trip.
By the way, in 2005 I was two years away from becoming a vegetarian and six years away from going vegan. So, when you read the word butter, or sausage, in your mind just append the word vegan to them. 🙂
Since before Yankee Doodle called a feather, “macaroni,” we Americans have been made to feel less cultured, less civilized and less enlightened than our western European counterparts. We’ve spent the better part of the last 229 years hopping up and down, waving our arms trying to get attention like a little kid turning cartwheels for his parent who gazes into the middle distance mumbling, “I’m looking, honey.” We’ve cultivated orchestras and dance companies (pilfering the best of the European crop), claim that the art world is centered somewhere in New York City, grow vast fields of grapes and point to regional cuisines as proof of our cultural worth. As Americans tend to do when feeling like the underdog (a position we enjoy, frankly – it brings out our best), we’ve exploited this perception, manipulated it, gloated over it and turned apparent negatives into positives.
On a recent visit to Germany and Austria I looked forward to spending time with my dad and brother. I looked forward to the time away from work and to experiencing a slower pace, an opportunity to enjoy the finer things that the good European life has to offer. There was certainly a lot to learn, I thought, from a continent where the afternoon nap is practically mandatory and vacations are meted out in months rather than weeks. I knew the autobahn would be spotlessly smooth, the tidy, cream-colored villages dotting the countryside picturesque with their church spires rising into crystalline skies and the ragged silhouettes of distance-blue mountains on the horizon breathtaking. Beds would be achingly soft, the fat, square eiderdown pillows and comforters covered in crisp, bleached linens.
In Regensburg I admired the litter-free cobbled streets that meandered between purveyors of lederhosen, hat-makers and welcoming pubs before emptying out onto tiny squares where townsfolk walked groomed pets that never pulled on the leash or jumped at an unsuspecting crotch. In Munich the subway escalators knew to change direction when needed and steins of beer rested patiently under dripping taps as their foamy heads popped and yielded up their hoppy goodness. And in Salzburg, my mouth watered at the mere sight of the word konditerei knowing inside there would be the deep, burnt smell of brewing coffee and ruler straight rows of pastries studded with the perfect globes of glazed raspberries and strawberries, miniature cakes in stiff satin chocolate coats, tiny tarts glutted with pieces of nuts frozen in their thick shellac of syrup. A Wayne Thiebaud painting that I could eat with a fork.
No matter where we were, people were unfailingly polite. They attempted to speak English when they saw us foundering. They queued obediently at bus stops and in front of store counters, nudging a bit too close maybe for my American-sized personal space, but still within the tolerable range. Cars were grime-free and most of them looked new. Bicyclists rode with perfect posture and never strayed from their designated area on the bike paths, ringing their cheery bells as they passed on the left. Public bathrooms were modern and spotless (if costly).
I was grudgingly beginning to admit that maybe they had something on us. Maybe the trials and errors over the long centuries had taught them how to slow down, how to better appreciate life’s offerings and over time they had attained an easy partnership with living. They didn’t need to overachieve or prove themselves. They were content to let America be the yapping puppy constantly pawing to get attention. They were civilized.
At this point I would love to share some tidbit of food lore or an interesting culinary anthropology factoid, but a 30-second Google search failed to yield an answer so I gave up and will leave that to the experts or at least someone with more patience. But it seems to me that somewhere way down the line, back when people first opened their doors to the hungry and offered a warm meal, bread must have figured prominently in the scenario. For one thing, the ingredients needed to make bread are few and simple. With the addition of a bowl, a spoon and some kind of oven, you’re ready to bake. And bread is an easy way to get something in front of the diner, something inside his empty belly while his meal is being prepared – whether it’s a burger dripping in melted cheese and sautéed onions or a stacked nouvelle creation drizzled in reduction-of-something. It doesn’t matter. Be it ciabatta, lavash, croissant or potato roll, bread is a welcoming gesture. It says: We’re glad you’re here. Stay a while. It soothes in a simple, humble way. Its crust crackling invitingly as it’s torn, yielding the dense, pillowy inside. Bread is at its best when steam gently rises as it’s pulled apart, thirstily soaking up pale, cold slabs of fresh cream butter. The offering bread is a thoughtful gesture. Offering bread gratis. Well, now that is a very civilized gesture.
And there it is. This is where Americans and Europeans part company. This is where our European friends have betrayed themselves and their centuries of refined living.
One fine day, sitting in a small, lovely beer garden in Germany on a cool afternoon, the soothing sounds of water splashing in a fountain, ruddy geranium flowers tumbling over the edges of their pots, a gentle breeze caressing our skin, my dad, brother and I relaxed in our chairs and looked forward to a good, no-nonsense meal of sausages and potatoes, sauerkraut and smoked fish. Dining at 3:00 pm in the afternoon. Utterly civilized. We’d ordered beers; we’d ordered an appetizer. As we sipped our brews and admired the courtyard, something nagged at us. Something was missing from the table. Looking around at other tables – we didn’t see it. It was missing there as well. There were tall glasses holding knives and forks wrapped in paper napkins. There were salt and pepper shakers standing lonely vigil at the center of each table. Small pots held tiny fake flowers, but there were no cloth-covered baskets hiding a clutch of warm, golden rolls. There were no plates with thin slices of dark, chewy rye – one for each diner – and no battered cutting board with a miniature, grainy loaf studded with sunflower seeds resting on it. The waiter must have forgotten, but he was nowhere in sight. We couldn’t begin a meal without bread! Nothing – not the fat sausages, not the crispy brown slivers of potato – would taste right.
That’s when my dad said it. “In Germany, you have to pay for bread.” What? What was this blasphemy I was hearing? It couldn’t be true. Sure, maybe the last time he’d been to Germany back in the 1970s. For all I knew, there had been a flour shortage back then. Certainly things had improved over the past 30 years. “And butter,” he added, almost as an afterthought. This was unbelievable, unbearable. Paying for bread was like paying for a glass of water (another story…) and now was I also supposed to understand that the bread I had to pay for didn’t even come with butter? How could one consume bread without adorning it with butter? Bread and butter were a team going back who knows how long, each player lending its uniqueness – one softly melting in the mouth with a delicate sweetness that brings out the bashful complexity of the other. And bread! Bread gives butter a reason to exist! It’s painful to even contemplate life without butter on bread. How would the cost of butter be determined? By the pat? Was an American pat smaller or bigger than a European pat? Was the metric system involved somehow? And what if a person didn’t eat all of the bread or all of the butter? Would they be credited for the unused portions? Could it be packed up and taken home? At that meal and almost every one that followed during our travels through Austria and Germany, we paid for bread. One of us would always cave and mumble, “…and some bread…and butter” after ordering our meal. It was unthinkable not to have its presence on our table.
Is it too simple to say that the claim to Europe’s civility rests on their refusal to throw in a few slices of bread at a diner? Maybe. But I say we Americans have learned something – invented something – that our European counterparts have failed to grasp (or are ignoring out of pride). The feeling of getting something for nothing is a powerful one. It breeds well-being, contentment and good will. (It may even breed return customers!) A restaurant that provides unlimited bread for all of its customers regardless of income or social status takes a stand for equality. To break bread together, free bread, is the ultimate in civility.