Category Archives: The way we eat

Save the Planet: Have dessert for dinner.


A recent picture of a Blintz/Blini posted on Facebook by Farallon’s fabulous pastry chef Emily Lucchetti set me off on a long explanation that Blintzes are considered Ashkenazim fare, but that they are part of a larger European cuisine called Eierspeisen and Mehlspeisen (egg dishes and flour dishes) which extend from the Balkan states through Germany, more popular in Southern Germany, and reaching what I have always assumed to be their acme in Austria, the one time capital of the “Danube Monarchy”. Blintzes  may or may not have begun in Hungary.  Their German name, Palatschinke, comes from Rumania and has nothing to do with “Schinken” or ham, but rather is derived from the Latin word for Placenta. Fair enough, if you can escape the visual image. It’s the sort of things mothers use to keep their sons close.

Balkan/Germanic flour and egg cookery encompasses a wide variety of magnificent foods from omelettes to Knoedel (dumplings) to a kind of cinnamon, sugar and butter  smothered French Toast jumble called “Arme Ritter”, or “Poor Knights”.  The occasionally manage to spoil Knoedel (steamed dumplings) by filling them with liver, but most Eierspeisen tend to be slightly sweet.  They are on the whole “Lecker”  (somewhere between tasty and delicious).

Germ Knoedel are only slightly sweet steamed dumplings, soft and mushy spungy, filled and covered with  poppy seeds and butter. Blini/Blintzes/Palatschinke are crepe like pancakes filled with Quark or “Topfen”, a low acid farm cheese and a little egg yolk sugar, and usually served with apricot jam. Many, like Clafoutis/Kirschpfannkuchen  and Swiss “Waihe”, a flaky pastry tart filled with fruit and custard then baked until the top is golden brown, contain seasonal fruit.

Eierspeisen are poor people’s food – good sources of energy and protein, less expensive than meat. Most of them – they are not overly sweet – serve as main dishes for lunch or dinner, generally accompanied by a simple salad.

When I first lived in German territory not that long after the war, poverty or at least lack of wealth was a lot more common than it is today (except Switzerland, whose recent declaration of the Happiest State in Europe definitely replaces the stupid saying that money doesn’t but happiness with the fact that a lot of money buys a lot of happiness),  meat was a luxury  enjoyed by many only once a week, usually on Sunday. Chicken was a luxury.   The rest of the week was filled with cold cuts (considered cheap back then, how times have changed) or cheese or “Auflauf” dishes – baked casseroles – plus a salad.

Waihe was usually Friday lunch or dinner, as Friday was house cleaning day, and the tart is quick easy to make before beginning the tasks, so we could  gather for “Kaffele” and maybe a town stroll with friends in the afternoon.

Eating dessert first was the done thing, as it probably still is. I liked it. A lot. There’s nothing like Apfelauflauf”  (apple casserole) to top off a rotten, cold, rainy grey day, of which northern Europe has more than its share.

Over the past three decades – perhaps more – I have seen the nightly cheese plate, cold cut plate, salad, casserole or Waihe replaced by more  meat dishes. In Germany, as a friend noted, the three main choices are still pig meat, pig meat and pig meat, but beef has gained popularity.  Veal, once a small luxury, has become a staple.  I think it’s a pity.

So do many environmentalists, who identify livestock, particularly cattle, as a source of greenhouse gasses equal to automobile emissions, noting the rising rates of climate change to be expected as the rest of the world adopts our levels of meat consumption. We are all going to Hell in a handcart..unless..

…We turn the tables and pick up what they are leaving behind. Trust me – you’ll like it, and Eierspeisen provide the perfect excuse for nutritional/environmental smugness: Heavens no, I am not living a six year old’s dream having apricot custard for dinner – I am suffering for the environment. Please pass me another piece of that peach souffle.”

Health? Don’t worry. Considering that the dishes generally contain fruit and protein (apricot jam is a fruit, ja?) it’s also a moderately balanced diet. Most of these dishes are low sodium and surely no more onerous than a plate of prime rib or Mac and Cheese. Live a little. Feel virtuous.

So try this one:

Apfel Auflauf (apple casserole, also known a bread pudding)

You will need a couple of apples. A bag of Zwieback, milk, five eggs, sugar, butter, a pinch of salt and cinnamon, raisins, nutmeg or lemon peel if you want.

Peel the apples. Preheat the oven to 375. Butter a form – it can be a soufflé form or a lasagna form – whatever you have. Souffle is deeper and takes a bit longer to cook.

Beat 3 eggs with about 3 cups milk and ¼ cup of sugar.

Cover the bottom of the form with Zweibeck, breaking off corners to fill in holes. There should be only a single layer.

Cover the Zwieback with the custard mix. Layer on the apples, add raisins, peel spice if you like. Carefully cover with the custard. Repeat layering. A pyrex bowl will hold about 2 layers of apples between three layers of Zwieback. You can end with either Zwieback or apples. If your final layer is Zweiback, they should be soaked in the custard. (If you run out of custard, make a little more). Let it sit for a few minutes, then put in the oven. Let bake for 15 minutes to 30, depending on how deep the form is (If you let it back longer, cover it for the first fifteen).


Swiss "Weihe" or apricot custard tart.

Swiss “Waihe” or apricot custard tart.

Cover the bottom of a low rimmed quiche pan with flaky or short crust pastry of your choice (In Europe it is sold by the pound, so nobody makes it). Pierce the crust with a fork to let the steam escape.

Cover the crust with thinly sliced apples, berries (blackberry or raspberry), apricot or Italian plum halves or quarters. If using half or quarter fruit, place the skin side down, so the moisture does not soak the crust. Put in the oven until the fruit begins to bubble a bit and some  moisture is gone..about 7 minutes.

Mix 5 eggs with ¼ to ½ cup of milk and ½ cup to 1 cup of sugar.  Pull the (hot!) form from the oven and gently pour on the custard mix. Return and bake for about 12 to 15 minutes, until the crust begins to darken. When the crust is set, you can sprinkle sugar on the top, which will caramelize nicely.

Put the form on the bottom rack of a 400 F oven and cook for about 7 minutes or until the fruit is a bit dried out.

Serve salad first, then the egg dish. Fruity whites work just fine with  Eierspeisen. The Swiss usually drink cider or tea. Can be followed with cheese. I rarely have room.

Linguistic aside: * “Lecker” is the precise German word for “Yummy”, equally insipid and annoying. If one has nothing better to say about food than “Yum”, one should concentrate on chewing.





Leave a comment

Food and People: The Rules of Engagement (manners)

Andrew Wolf, one of San Francisco’s established front of the house giants, recently stepped back from the dining room to instruct diners on how to eat in a restaurant. His decades in in the front of some of the City’s best restaurants had obviously given him proof enough that more than a few  people needed it.

Mr Wolfe

Andrew’s video and blog tips are pretty basic: Take off your hat, put your napkin in your lap, don’t put your wallet on the table, don’t put your elbows on the table, don’t shout at the waiter. He includes finer points such as the correct position of knife and fork to show that you are finished with your meal (He got it wrong), and which fork goes first.

We disagreed on the elbows issue. Mr Wolfe feels that one needs to keep the table in a restaurant free to allow the servers to work more easily, while I feel that I am renting the table and will tip the servers more than I am comfortable giving, so they can either work around me or ask me nicely to make room. I find, in fact, the elbow rule only slightly more inane than the American practice  of keeping one’s hand in one’s lap – something which upset my German friends terribly before they broke me of the habit. (What are you doing with your hand down there?)

I had never thought much about manners, assuming that their purpose was to keep us from killing each other over the last piece of bread, spreading disease or disgusting our friends, so that we would all end up alone. Wondering what lay behind the more obtuse rules of culinary engagement, I set out to check with the usual Google search, The results were the standard know-nothing blather blog:  “Manners have been with us since the dawn of time.”  (Not) “Manners are a social necessity.” (Neither).

I hit pay dirt,  however, at the local library, where the librarian culled out a pile of books which showed me that I didn’t know anything about manners – that the concept, meaning and origin of manners – either.

Manners, as it turns out, at least in literature about as learned as I am capable of digesting, have nothing to do with food safety or the maintenance of civil peace and avoidance of violence. Etiquette is not altruistic behavior. Quite the opposite, it is self-serving – from its inception to its current practice it’s function is self preservation.

Manners, etiquette and courtesy, says a German sociologist  named Norbert Elias, traveled from Italy to northern Europe somewhere around the early 12th century. They were not, as common wisdom supposes, an altruistic equalizing force stemming from any kind of instinctive civility, nor are they rooted in a desire to prevent discord, violence or disease.

On the contrary, manners in the dark ages through at least the seventeenth century were the purview of the privileged, or to be more exact the court. They were exclusive an exclusionary. Their desired function was to please the King or Prince, or whatever lead wolf or potentate sat at the head of the table and to move the well mannered courtier closer to his liege, who had the power to destroy capriciously those who did not please him and give their land, women and other chattel to those who did.

The words we use for them say as much: Courtesy stems from Old French corteis, or of the court, chivalry from Old French chivalerie, the customs of knighthood, and etiquette from Old French, from estiquette. Today in most Indo-European languages etiquette means “label” – in this case the label of class and sophistication.

Medieval formalized decorum and propriety, such as they were (and they weren’t much), were the secret handshakes of powerful sycophants toadying to despots – the ticket to top placement at the courts and inner circles of nobility.

Elias translates admonishing verses of a dozen or so manners gurus from Italy to England  from Latin, Old English and Middle High German. The guidelines of the first and most prominent, Erasmus of Rotterdam, reveals in De Civilitate Norum Puerilum in 1530  images of a frankly downright revolting dining culture. Your errant knight was also a profligate pig.

Remember that luxuries like plates, forks, individual cups and spoons and napkins were non existent at the time. Each noble diner brought his own knife and possibly a napkin (they are mentioned) there was a cloth on the table. Food was served in common bowls and placed on trenchers – squares of bread. Tortillas come to mind. Diners drank from the same tankard, supped with one or a few spoons, dipped their hands into the common bowl, after doing God knows what with them. Erasmus admonishes  his readers not to do God knows what at table, indicating that they, of course, did.

Erasmus and the rest of the etiquette writers instruct their readers not to dip bread they have already bitten off into the pot, not to blow their noses on the table cloth (use the sleeve), not to scratch their bodies then reach into the bowl, use the spoon, not your hand, not to show “the parts of the body”, pick your nose while eating, don’t spit food back into the common vessel, to leave the room for other bodily functions, cough to cover up the sound of passing wind, and to check that the seat is not “soiled” before sitting down.

Reading Elias will ruin every historic medieval movie food scene you have ever seen or will see. Camelot’s banquet couldn’t be further from historical fact. Tom Jones was never that delicate at dinner. Robin Hood did not politely pass the leg of mutton.  The table behavior bar for the courtly was shockingly low.  All one had to do to keep the potentate happy and thus protect one’s own interests was to refrain from being thoroughly disgusting.

Of course my ancestors did not participate in these relative niceties, nor, probably did yours. The foundation of the concept of etiquette is exclusionary. Keep out the plebs, which was us and probably  you. What table cloth? What table, for that matter? My folk (and probably yours) were all seated on a dirt floor grabbing gruel from some vessel while they scratched themselves wherever, and it didn’t bother them a bit. They were, in fact,forbidden to assume some of the courtly modes.

Elias indicates that there was (and is) really  no rhyme or reason behind manners. They are self-perpetuating. Their initial necessity lay not in practicality, but in the need for the idle, pragmatically useless and frequently barbaric noble classes to distinguish themselves from the “industrial classes”, the people who actually did things.  Evolution was driven not by new social and scientific insights but by approximately the same engine that drives fashion and teenage slang: Once something becomes wide spread, the cool insiders have to come up with something new. “My liege, everyone is now using forks! Even the weavers!  What shall we do?” “Quelle Horreur! But wait! I have it! Let’s make another fork and make it shorter. We’ll tell them they have to use if for fish! That’ll shake out the pretenders for a while.”

The rules of dining engagement initially forbidden for plebeians eventually trickled down through the lower classes (most of us) as the industrial classes rose to wealth and influence and after the French and American Revolution. Rather than being the result of social evolution, they are a symptom, and Elias uses them to illustrate “The Civilizing Process”, the name of his book.  Your ancestors were not easily grossed out, but with the passage of time our capacity for revulsion and sense of modesty and shame increased as our tolerance of physical exhibits dwindled; we are today, in short, more easily disgusted and more private.

There is, despite all of the urban mythology, old wives’ tales, and general nonsense regarding the origins of various customs no clear practical or historical reason for us not to put our elbows on the table, our hand in our lap or our salad plate on the left. The world will not stop spinning if you use the wrong fork. There is no reason you can’t eat your peas with your knife – as Margaret Visser points out in her exhaustive treatise on eating behavior, The Rituals of dinner, it is not to protect you from getting speared. You never poke yourself with your fork, after all.

Most of our behavioral codes are rooted more in social frippery and conceit than considerate concern for our table mates. They are the badge of the inaugurated, the kids at the cool table, the ticket – etiquette – to the higher rungs. They give us reason and right to exclude those who don’t own the key. They may be in part empty form, but they are universally accepted empty form. Anyone aspiring to sit at the cool kids’ table has to know them.

Andrew Wolfe is not Erasmus. For one thing he writes conveniently in English, but the two writers have a fair amount in common: They write from experience.  They saw/have seen a substantial number of people who don’t know the rules – who blew their noses on the table cloth or drop their gym bag on the table.

Their respective writings serve the same purpose. They better people not necessarily morally but socially and financially. If manners began as a way to gain wealth or avoid ruin (or torture, death and loss of wife, daughter and other chattel) they continue as the key to the kingdom. The practice of vetting job candidates by inviting them and their wives to dinner and watching their behavior declined after business meal tax deductions were drastically reduced, but etiquette, whether it makes sense or not, can work for or against anyone in the business world.

People know this, and because they do, there is a tradition and ongoing market for etiquette instruction. Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt built their brands on democratizing and rationalizing the hitherto exclusive codes of manners to an upwardly mobile nation. Judith Martin is still syndicated.  Freiherr Adolph Franz Friedrich Ludwig Knigge’s 1788 German etiquette encyclopedia is still in print and widely read today in German speaking countries. Oddly, it is available in the San Francisco public library only in Korean and Chinese translations. Go figure.

Our global era, whose social forms are in the flux of equal rights and gender equality  has given rise to hundreds of niche manners publications. People read them because they are the key to not only social but to career and financial success. Manners and etiquette are still the ticket to power or to courting it. They are ways to get ahead.

Etiquette Maven Syndi Said

Andy Wolfe’s site and skilled videos are, in this sense a social service. I don’t always agree with his points, but that probably speaks to the middling state of my own practical manners. So is the exquisite work of Syndi Said, whose etiquette lessons for young business graduates and gangling teens provide the polish needed to survive and feel comfortable in formal dining situations, and with that a key to the keepers of power. She early realized that young people with  career track tech degrees straight from the Pizza and Jolt Cola dorm dining culture were smart enough to realize sooner or later the need to fit in the places of power and career ascension. She also realized that mothers wanted this for their children, who were more likely to be impressed at a formal manners training lunch with a stranger than by their own constant, “Jacob! Close your mouth when you chew and don’t drink form the carton!” nagging.

The two etiquette pundits  are worth a look. So are a number of books I read for this post  – not etiquette guides, but  investigations into how the customs of eating reflect our society, culture, politics and history, which will take you far beyond the code of the table and shine new lights on war, gender relations, isolationism and social trends for the last ten or so centuries. Since much of the above is culled from a few authors, I have put  together an informal bibliography. Manners, as it turns out, are history. They are pretty fascinating.

Leave a comment