a peer reviewed scholarly journal on literature and art in the German speaking countries after 1945
G l o s s e n: Artikel
Beyond Currywurst and Döner: The Role
of Food in German Multicultural Literature and Society
After outlining some striking similarities between
ethnic food marketing and multicultural literature, I intend to
analyze the role of food in contemporary German literature and
society. Specifically, I will look at two texts by Rafik Schami
("Kebab ist Kultur") and Uwe Timm (Die Entdeckung
der Currywurst). In both of these texts, food plays a crucial
role. In "Kebab ist Kultur," food is a marker of difference
and alterity. In Die Entdeckung der Currywurst, food is the impetus
to trace history - personal history as well as the history of
postwar Germany. Questions related to cultural differences, history,
and memory have been highly contested within German society, and
I am therefore convinced they will continue to play an important
role in German literature and German studies.
Despite its immense cultural importance, food
has only recently started to receive the scholarly attention it
deserves. The last ten years have seen a significant increase
in the number of journals, books, and panels at conferences devoted
to this topic. Most of this scholarly attention, however, has
been outside the realm of German literature. This comes as
a surprise if one considers that food metaphors have been used
extensively to convey a wide array of feelings and ideas. Obviously,
this article can only touch on a small area within the larger
field of food and literature. In this essay, I am particularly
interested in issues connected to the social meaning and implications
of "ethnic" food.
Similarly to clothing and language, food is of
primordial importance for the social and personal development
of identity. Food is as much a part of our everyday lives as it
is connected to special occasions. Food is a social signifier
embedded with many layers of meaning. The production, preparation,
and consumption of food touches upon many aspects of our lives.
The sensory aspect of food triggers memories and initiates storytelling.
Who cooks, who eats and how much tells us a lot about gender,
social, and often ethnic and racial relationships. Far from being
just work, although it is important to keep in mind that for many
people cooking is first and foremost work, cooking affords the
possibility for creative expression. In this regard it is similar
to writing, with the major difference being that many more senses
are involved. Food embodies culture, it brings people together,
and sometimes it also marks disagreements and misunderstandings
- as will be obvious in the two texts under consideration here.
Both ethnic food marketing and multicultural literature
have to be placed into a broader socio-political context of social
exclusion and marginalization, and simultaneously of exotic culture
hopping and commercially extremely profitable desire. In recent
times, the effects of social exclusion and marginalization have
been widely discussed. Less attention has been given to the fact
that multiculturalism sells quite well - in the form of books,
clothes, restaurants, and as a culinary-literary crossover: ethnic
cookbooks. What this form of capitalization on "otherness"
means not only to the immediate participants of these transactions,
but also to society at large, has yet to be studied in detail.
While Döner was introduced to Germany by
Turkish migrants, and at least originally was known as a "Turkish"
food, it is not available in Turkey in the same form. It is a
hybrid product born out of migration and adapted to German tastes.
The same, I would argue, holds true for migrant/minority/multicultural
literature in Germany, despite the fact that occasionally these
books are still being shelved under Turkish/Arabic/nation of origin
literature in bookstores. Multicultural literature in Germany
is, with few exceptions, being written for a German public that
includes migrants and minorities as well as ethnic Germans. It
is informed by memories of the past as well as by visions for
the future, and it reveals new insights not only into the lives
of migrants and minorities but also into the makings of German
culture today. The longstanding and far-reaching debates about
terminology and classification are indicative of the underlying
dilemmas about referent, representation, cultural identity, and
A related similarity between food marketing and
multicultural literature applies to image and self-classification.
While in the past most owners of Döner Imbisses marketed
their product by accentuating its Turkishness or exoticness, in
recent years many have downplayed all ethnic connotations. This
is especially surprising if one considers the fact that demand
for ethnic food has actually been increasing. According to Çaglar,
this change in marketing strategy cannot be explored from within
a framework which only takes into account market forces, but rather
has to be placed into a broader context of German Turks' social
exclusion and quest for social mobility in Germany. Here again
we see an interesting parallel to literature: many authors now
downplay or even object to all ethnic connotations, despite the
fact that multicultural literature has been more popular than
ever before. Instead of presenting themselves as ethnic writers,
many prefer to be perceived as cosmopolitan Weltbürger instead.
One of the most successful cross-cultural ambassadors in Germany
today, writer and actress Renan Demirkan, states on her personal
web-page her nationality as neither Turkish nor German, nor any
combination thereof, but instead as "Cosmopolitin."
This attempt to defy marginalizing categories is intended as a
push towards inclusion and openness, and yet, by seemingly requiring
a self-image free of ethnic markers, I would contend that this
stance is not unproblematic either.
The issue of globalization, especially in the
form of global capitalism versus local agency and local tastes,
takes center stage in Rafik Schami's short narrative "Kebab
ist Kultur." Already in the title of this story, the Syrian-German
writer Schami equates Kebab with culture. Clearly the word culture
in this context is not a solely descriptive term, referring to
cultural practices of a distinct group of people - although it
does that too. "Kultur" implies positive achievements,
and these value judgments are consequently transferred to the
food in question. This notion of Kebab as a signifier of culture
and cultural achievement is reinforced by the subtitle of the
story, which also clearly expresses the author's point of view:
"pro Mahmud contra McDonald's."
In this context, McDonald's stands as much for
a globalization of tastes and capital as Kebab stands for culture.
Jeremy MacClancy, in his influential study Consuming Culture:
Why You Eat What You Eat, has succinctly shown how "as the
fast-food chain spreads its corporate net further and further
around the globe, the hamburger comes to symbolize not just American
culture, but American cultural imperialism as well."10 Schami's
story, as it speaks out against a standardized world without local
peculiarities and quirks, clearly follows this line of thought.
Of course at least in Germany, the popularity of Döner Kebab
(still?) outweighs the appeal of McDonald's - which in turn might
help the appeal and success of Schami's story.
Mahmud, the main character of "Kebab ist
Kultur," is a self-described Kebab-Artist. This artistry
stands in clear opposition to McDonald's, which MacClancy describes
as "not a 'restaurant', but a smoothly functioning assembly
line manufacturing a uniform and reliable product." But
even compared to his local competitors, whose preparation of Kebab
is governed by speed and efficiency, Mahmud follows a strict ceremony
reminiscent of magic as much as of cooking. He puts his heart
and soul into cooking and takes it as an insult when somebody
does not treasure his creation. His identification with the food
he prepares goes so far that he attributes a soul to the meat
- a soul which, in his opinion, his competitors destroy by using
an electric meat grinder or electric refrigeration. This is an
example of Schami's use of exaggerations and cultural stereotypes
which, one might argue, is problematic in so far as it reinforces
certain negative cliches about others. I would submit, however,
that besides exaggerating the descriptions of Easterners and Westerners,
these cultural stereotypes are being used in a quirky and humorous
way. Schami's reliance on humor is one of his trademarks, and
it has certainly contributed to his continuous popularity.
Despite Mahmud being the only one who does the
actual work, cooking is not a solitary endeavor for him. He requires
the participation of his customers, who have to dutifully admire
the meat itself and Mahmud's preparation of the dish at the appropriate
moments. By moving the act of cooking out of the confinement of
the kitchen and involving the customers/eaters, Schami emphasizes
the community building aspect of cooking. It is the praise of
the eaters that sustains the cook and gives meaning to his efforts,
and it is this communal effort which turns cooking into more than
a service rendered to paying customers.
The central conflict of this story occurs when
four American tourists enter Mahmud's store. After taking many
photos of the stereotypical Arab shopkeeper, the just-as-stereotypical
Americans, wearing brightly colored, inappropriate clothes, proceed
to order the local specialty Kebab. At first, Mahmud is very pleased
and envisions this as an opportunity to let everybody know that
he is the best Kebab-Artist in the whole world. He therefore tries
very hard to impress his customers by not only ensuring the highest
quality of the finished product, but also by stepping up the performance
character of his cooking. All goes well, until the American tourists
unknowingly and unintentionally commit a major insult by putting
ketchup on their Kebab.
What is at stake is clearly more than a question
of taste - although taste is generally regarded as a significant
marker of ethnicity. David Bell and Gill Valentine, in their seminal
study Consuming Geographies: We Are Where We Eat, have discussed
how "[c]ultural definitions of edibility in terms of foodstuffs
and the order and combination of foods are time and space specific."
Consequently, food is one area in which boundaries between communities
get drawn and insiders and outsiders distinguished. While the
American tourists' desire to eat the local specialty signals a
certain openness towards "other" or "ethnic"
food, they simultaneously show their cultural ignorance by not
knowing the "proper" way to eat Kebab. As Pierre Bourdieu
has analyzed in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement
of Taste, taste and "knowing the proper way to eat a certain
food" is usually associated with class. The reason for
these tourists' faux pas, however, is culture rather than class.
The tourists' predicament, of course, is not restricted
to intercultural encounters, it is one of the general pitfalls
of dining out. Bell and Valentine, among others, remind us that
"in a restaurant, everything we eat and the ways we eat it
are on constant display, under continual surveillance."
For many Americans, not running into problems like these is one
of the great advantages of eating at McDonald's: As MacClancy
has pointed out, there is "[n]o need to worry about your
table manners, or lack of them." Of course, what exactly
constitutes proper table manners is just as culturally specific
as taste. A visit to a McDonald's restaurant might be so common
place to most Americans that the question of "proper behavior"
requires nary a second thought. Skills like how to place an order,
find a table, and eat without embarrassing your friends cannot
be taken for granted, however. James L. Watson gives the following
example to illustrate this point: "During McDonald's first
week of operation in Moscow, employees distributed information
sheets to people standing in queues, telling them how to order
and what to do after paying." Employees at this particular
McDonald's outlet further had to reassure customers that smiling
at them was only supposed to convey the message that they were
happy to serve them, and did not imply laughing at them.
To go back to Schami's story, the customers' ignorance
of local food practices is of course only one reason for the ensuing
altercation. The other reason is Mahmud's outrage at his customers'
behavior. He is not about to accept that his customers eat their
food in any way they please. Having worked hard to bring out the
best flavor of the meat, he knows that these efforts would have
been wasted by the overpowering taste of the ketchup. He thus
perceives that his work was in vain. Instead of his tourists being
so impressed by his skills that they would tell everybody about
it, they probably would not have known the difference between
superior and mediocre Kebab. They are interested in the "ethnic"
eating experience, without possessing the necessary background
or even inclination to differentiate between various kinds of
food that are all "foreign" to them.
Mahmud's fault, of course, was that he assumed
that his customers would share his own sense of taste. But taste,
as I have pointed out before, is culturally specific - and even
McDonald's has had to go to great lengths to alter local tastes,
which has proven more cost effective than adapting the menu to
local tastes. With the use of culturally specific marketing strategies
and appeals to children, whose tastes are not yet biased against
the American menu, McDonald's foreign partners have been very
successful. This success extends to places like Hong Kong where
"the pessimism was pervasive. The consensus was that the
Chinese eat rice, not hamburgers." There are, of course,
some small modifications to the standard McDonald's fare in different
countries: beer in Germany, espresso in Italy, and a mutton-based
Maharaja Mac in India, to name just a few. All in all, however,
"McDonald's had better luck changing local eating habits
than adapting its menu to fit them. [...] In effect, McDonald's
realized that it could only be successful abroad if it stuck to
the very same menu and store design that worked at home."
As a result, McDonald's has been widely acclaimed (or bedeviled,
depending on the critic's point of view) for its standardization
and homogenization of taste.
While unappreciated work and different tastes
are the basis for the altercation in "Kebab ist Kultur,"
I would argue that the issue at stake goes beyond these two aspects.
Mahmud's enforcing of the (only) culturally acceptable way to
enjoy his Kebab is a local attempt to stand up against the globalization
of tastes by the almost worldwide availability and marketing of
mega food-suppliers like McDonalds. Interestingly, these local
pockets of resistance, as outlined in this story, coincide with
increased efforts by McDonalds to position itself as a global
link between diverse ethnic communities. As Elspeth Probyn has
shown, the 1996 McDonald's ad campaign "It's MacTime Now"
represents McDonald's as "the agent that hyphenates different
locales into a global vision of one big happy family." While
seemingly foregrounding the localism within the global, it is
ultimately the very universality of McDonald's that emerges across
In Schami's story, Mahmud is not willing to submit
to this form of Americanized globalization - which aligns him
with critics like Pheng Cheah, who has pointed out that globalization
in the form of economic transnationalism is often "U.S. economic
nationalism in global disguise." This puts Mahmud in
contrast to his neighbor, the hairdresser, who tries to explain
the tourists' behavior with the slogan "other countries,
other customs." Mahmud's response to the hairdresser's reminder
of the culturally determined nature of customs and tastes is thus
a sound "Ja, Mann, aber das hier ist unser Land!"
While this reply could be read as a narrow prescription for culturally
acceptable tastes and behaviors, it can also be seen as an attempt
to preserve the plurality of distinct flavors and tastes grown
out of different cultures against homogenizing entities like McDonald's.
And after all, as Carole Counihan reminds us, "[m]anners
and habits of eating are crucial to the very definition of community."
These intersections between eating and community
are also the driving forces in the second piece of literature
under consideration here. Despite its title, Uwe Timm's Die Entdeckung
der Currywurst is not primarily a book about food. It is first
and foremost a book about memory. Setting out to learn all he
can about the discovery of Currywurst (sliced sausage with ketchup
and curry powder), the narrator in Timm's novella learns even
more about the war and postwar time in Germany. He visits Lena
Brücker, a now retired snack bar owner in Hamburg, who is
rumored to have invented the Currywurst. At least according to
Timm's legend, people in Berlin are convinced that Berlin snack
bar owner Herta Heuwer invented Currywurst in 1949. In Die
Entdeckung der Currywurst, old Mrs. Brücker tells her story
during one week of afternoon visits, while having coffee and cake.
Impatient at first, the narrator soon learns that hurrying Mrs.
Brücker along won't work. The narrator wants to find out
about the details of the invention; Mrs. Brücker's main interest
is in telling her story.
This is not the only book by Uwe Timm which uses
food as an impetus for story telling. The novel Johannisnacht
recounts the narrator's research into the history of the potato.
In both of these books, the narrator is closely patterned after
Uwe Timm himself. There are also other characters who show up
in both books: Uncle Heinz, the potato connoisseur in Johannisnacht
who is the stimulus for the narrator's research into the potato,
also allegedly accompanied the narrator when he tasted his first
Currywurst. In both books, research into food provides the occasion
for a multitude of stories and experiences. Interwoven in Lena
Brücker's story are the stories of many other people, and
also the story of Germany 1945-1947.29 Like the act of cooking
(and inventing or rather discovering Currywurst) itself, personal
history is always embedded in socio-political history. Many different
people contribute to this story/history/discovery, and when the
narrator finally receives the original recipe, a page ripped out
of an old magazine with the ingredients for Currywurst scribbled
on its side, he has obtained much more than a recipe.
Die Entdeckung der Currywurst highlights the contributions
of many different people and circumstances to the development
of a specific food. This also points to the fact that nobody "owns"
a recipe. People modify and adapt recipes; they add, subtract,
and substitute ingredients; they combine ingredients in new ways,
which might lead to the claim of having invented a new recipe,
but they always base their modifications on existing recipes.
This raises the question of when a recipe is rightfully considered
"stolen" versus when it is "borrowed" or "collected."
Lisa Heldke astutely remarks: "A cookbook author is described
as having 'stolen' recipes only if they have previously appeared
in published form - a form of communicating that privileges people
on the basis of class and education as well as race, and often
sex." This truth is acknowledged in the literary text
itself: "Die meisten bezweifelten, daß die Currywurst
erfunden worden ist. Und dann noch von einer bestimmten Person?
[...] Sind solche Speisen nicht kollektive Leistungen?"
Furthermore taking into account the accidental nature of Brücker's
discovery - she trips on a staircase, breaks three bottles of
ketchup, and spills the curry powder she has just received in
her postwar black market trades - "Entdeckung" (discovery)
is indeed a more appropriate term than "Erfindung" (invention),
the term customarily used with recipes. The culinary discovery
of Currywurst is shaped by chance and coincidence, and consequently
the "recipe" is anything but straight forward.
Like "Kebab ist Kultur," Die Entdeckung
der Currywurst tells about the power of food to bring people together.
Not coincidentally, food is the topic of narration as well as
a catalyst for storytelling. The tale of the discovery of curried
sausage is told while consuming food. Talking about food requires
the simultaneous consumption of food. And cooking, as Schami's
short story has already attested to, requires willing eaters.
Likewise, Timm's heroine Brücker only starts to enjoy cooking
once she is cooking for somebody who enjoys eating her food, in
this case the deserted sailor Bremer who she harbors in her apartment.
It is this same ability to enjoy food that the narrator ascribes
to Brücker while she is eating the cakes and pastries he
brings to her. In contrast to this Genussfähigkeit, Brücker
attributes the fact that previously she never enjoyed cooking
to her own father who used to shuffle food into his mouth without
paying attention to what he was eating.33
Similar to Döner Kebab, which is a hybrid
product born out of migration and adapted to German tastes, Currywurst
is a signifier for foreignness and Germanness at the same time.
"Exotic" curry powder gives spice to the most "German"
of German dishes, sausage. Currywurst, as Timm's narrator states,
"verbindet das Fernste mit dem Nächsten, den Curry mit
der Wurst" (12). Of course curry powder itself is not the
"typical" Indian spice as which it is being sold in
Germany, but rather a colonial British fabrication. Uma Narayan
astutely describes the British incorporation of curry as follows:
"They were incorporating not Indian food, but their own 'invention'
of curry powder." This, according to Narayan, involved
a "fabricated entity that was incorporated on the self's
terms." Timm's story raises similar questions about the
social meaning of "ethnic" food in German or more generally
Western society. First of all, are we talking about ethnic or
"ethnicized" food? What are the implications of cultural
incorporation and food colonialism? And is it still colonialism,
even when our food adventures are guided by the desire to experience
and learn about other cultures?
Taken to a different level, what are the implications
of literary colonialism? Like food, literature is often charged
with building bridges and fostering understanding. Only recently
has there been a turn against this instrumentalization of multicultural
literature, which often reduces "ethnic" literature
to this function at the expense of aesthetics and artistry. So
the question at stake is not only about the insights food and
literature bestow upon us, but also about the pleasures they contain
and bring forth. Maybe the most important question, however, is
the following: what can "ethnic" food or literature
reveal not only about the other, but about the self? How does
ethnic food or literature challenge and change our understanding
of Germanness, instead of just "adding" to it?
In his detailed history of Döner Kebab, Seidel-Pielen
praises the intercultural connections made possible by ethnic
food like Döner: "Nicht in den Volkshochschulkursen
und an den Stätten der Hochkultur, sondern an der Imbißbude
kamen Hans und Mustafa ins Gespräch, reiften die Pläne
für die erste Türkeireise." While maybe overstating
the communicative potential of snack bar encounters, Seidel-Pielen
successfully analyzes the effect Döner has had on the cultural
landscape of Germany. He thus moves away from a study of the "other"
to an analysis of the self. He does, however, neglect to ask some
crucial questions: What are the differences between food appreciation
and appropriation? And what does it mean that Döner is now
being considered a quintessential German dish? Does this really
challenge and change our definition of Germanness, or is it just
an appropriation of select aspects of a "foreign" culture
made palatable to German tastes?
I would also like to add the following caveat:
While eating ethnic food, similar to traveling or reading multicultural
literature, might indeed be the first step to meaningful intercultural
communication, more often than not it is merely a substitute for
seriously dealing with the social, political and cultural aspects
of migration and globalization. One just has to consider the increase
in popularity of ethnic food in the 1990s, at the exact same time
that racial/ethnic discrimination and violence against minorities
in Germany increased, to realize that the mere act of eating ethnic
food does not create a more equitable world. Without trying to
disparage the good intentions of cultural committees and international
student organizations, the ever-popular ethnic or international
food festivals therefore cannot be the only answer to ongoing
problems and concerns. In a similar vein, and contrary to the
beliefs of many well-meaning Germans, having dinner at the local
Italian restaurant does not constitute an active contribution
Applying the food metaphor to society at large,
cultural critic Bell Hooks worries about the commodification of
otherness. When the cultural other is appropriated, "ethnicity
becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that
is mainstream white culture." The same has happened,
I would argue, in respect to multicultural literature. Ethnic
literature is being praised as enlivening and rejuvenating the
"bland" German literary landscape. As a telling example,
see Lerke von Saalfeld's introduction to foreign writers in Germany:
"Durch diese Autorinnen und Autoren gelangt eine Lebendigkeit
und Vielseitigkeit in die deutsche Literatur, die den hausgemachten
Eintopf zu einer wohlschmeckenderen Kost verwandelt."
While certainly meant well, this is exactly the type of commodification
Hooks warned about. "Foreign" writers are being praised
for giving spice to "German" literature and culture,
without seriously questioning the meaning of Germanness.
Nevertheless, the increased acceptance of ethnic
food, literature and other cultural "products" is certainly
a good development. The same acceptance, however, does not always
extend towards the people behind the products. Reforms in regard
to citizenship, increased political participation for all members
of society, and protection from discrimination are only slowly
coming in Germany. As Leslie Adelson has pointed out, intercultural
encounters today are taking place within German culture, not between
German culture and something outside it. In her article entitled
"Against Between: A Manifesto," Adelson argues that
"the trope of 'betweenness' often functions literally like
a reservation designed to contain, restrain, and impede new knowledge,
not enable it." She further maintains that "(c)ultural
contact today is not an 'intercultural encounter' that takes place
between German culture and something outside it, but something
happening within German culture between the German past and the
German present." Food has played an important role in
these encounters, and our understanding of the significance of
food will contribute to our understanding of society. By critically
analyzing and appreciating the role of food in literature and
culture, we might gain surprising and rewarding insights about
ourselves that move beyond reifying celebrations of ethnicity.
As these literary examples have shown, food can be the language
of conflict as well as of dialogue and reconciliation; it always
contains traces of the past; and it also offers enticing visions
for the future.
copyright: Glossen, Oktober, 2004