For German Butchers, a Wurst Case Scenario

As Germans turn to American-style supermarkets, the local butcher—a fixture in their sausage-happy culture—is packing it in

Otto Wolf readies meats for the smoker at the Glasbrenner Butchery, a shop near Stuttgart owned by one of a dwindling number of master butchers in Germany. (Andreas Teichmann)
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When it comes to animal protein, the German language is lacking in euphemism. Meat is “flesh,” hamburger is “hacked flesh,” pork is “pig flesh” and uncured bacon is “belly flesh,” as in, “Could you please pass me another slice of flesh from the pig’s belly?”

A favorite children’s food, a bologna-like luncheon meat, is called by the curious term “flesh sausage.” No family visit to the meat counter is complete without a free slice of “flesh sausage” rolled up and handed to a smiling youngster in a stroller. Few things put me in a pensive mood like hearing my daughter cry out in delight, “Flesh, Papa! I want more Fleisch!

While I’ve grown accustomed to the culinary bluntness of the German language after living here for a few years, I still wince at the coarseness of the cuisine itself. I find certain traditional meat dishes difficult to stomach, such as Eisbein, a boiled pig’s knuckle the size of a small meteorite served with a thick, fatty layer of rubbery skin and protruding leg bone. Or Saumagen, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s favorite dish, which is reminiscent of that Scottish favorite, haggis. Imagine all sorts of meats and vegetables sewn into a pig’s stomach and boiled—unless you’d rather not. Then there’s the dish known to induce cravings along the lines of the American yen for White Castle burgers. It’s called Mett, and Germans will eat it for breakfast, lunch, an afternoon snack during a hard day of labor or to satisfy a late-night longing.

Mett is finely ground raw pork sprinkled with salt and pepper, spread thickly across a split roll, or Brötchen, like an open-faced sandwich, and topped with diced onion. I could swear I’ve seen it topped with a sprinkling of fresh, minced parsley, but my wife, Erika, who is German, assures me such couldn’t be the case because that—that—would be gross. She doesn’t eat Mett often—I’ve never seen her consume it in seven years of marriage—but when the topic comes up, I’ve heard her make an uncharacteristic lip-smacking noise followed by, “Mmm, yummy, yummy.”

Consuming raw pork is hardly imaginable in America, where we typically boil precooked hot dogs “just in case” and cook our pork chops until they’re rubbery. Given its checkered history with parasites that cause trichinosis, pork is forever suspect. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends cooking pork to an internal temperature of 170 degrees; commercial kitchens are required to.

Eating raw pork requires a leap of faith we see in few countries outside of Germany, where the nation’s butcher profession has been held in high regard for more than seven centuries. Germans know they can trust the quality of their meat.

Granted, I’m a queasy eater. I prefer meat masquerading as nuggets to a platter of tongue with its paisley swirl of taste buds. But one day, in an adventurous spirit, I ordered a Mett Brötchen at a popular outdoor café nestled in the shadow of Aachen’s Kaiserdom, Charlemagne’s imperial cathedral, which he built more than 1,200 years ago. The glistening pink marbled meat looked a bit like raw packaged hamburger, but shinier and more delicate, ground to the consistency of angel-hair pasta. As I brought the meat toward my mouth, I instinctively closed my eyes, then took a bite and boldly toyed with it atop my tongue. The texture was not at all sinewy, but rather soft, almost like baby food; the flavor was decidedly savory, with a welcome tang of onion.

Later that night, flushed with pride, I related my heroic attempt at culinary assimilation to Erika and her mother as we snacked on cold cuts and buttered bread—a common German evening meal. My mother-in-law’s eyes widened as she pursed her lips. Then silence.

“You didn’t buy it directly from a butcher?” Erika finally asked.

“Well, no, but I ordered it from one of the finest cafés in town.”

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