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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She grimaced. “When you eat Mett, you don’t want there to be a middleman.”

I spent the rest of the night in bed contemplating the irreversible nature of digestion.

Although Erika and her mother will buy meat only from a butcher—and a butcher whose meat comes from a nearby farm—the majority of Germans no longer have such inhibitions. Freezers that used to be the size of shoe boxes, but were well suited to frequent visits to neighborhood butchers and markets, have been replaced with freezers big enough to hold several weeks’ worth of groceries bought at American-style supermarkets. In Germany, the shunning of local butchers amounts to the repudiation of a cultural heritage.

German butchers are fond of pointing out that, while their profession may not be as old as prostitution, it dates back at least to biblical times, when temple priests honed their slaughtering and meat-cutting skills while sacrificing animals at the altar. In recognition of this, the emblem of the German butcher profession was once the sacrificial lamb. One of the earliest historical mentions of sausage comes from Homer’s Odyssey—grilled goat stomach stuffed with blood and fat—but it is Germany, with its 1,500 varieties of Wurst, that is the world’s sausage capital.

Germans, blessed with a temperate climate and abundant pastureland, have always eaten a lot of meat, and sausage is a natural way to preserve every scrap of an animal. The frankfurter—America’s favorite sausage—was indeed invented in the city of Frankfurt in the late 15th century. (Austria lays claim to the virtually identical Wiener, which means “Viennese” in German.) Bismarck was such a fan of the sausages that he kept a bowl of them on his breakfast table. Then, as now, frankfurters were prized for their finely minced pork, dash of nutmeg and—since the 19th century—pickle-crisp bite, a tribute to sheep’s-intestine casings.

The Bratwurst, a favorite of Goethe’s, can be traced at least as far back as the 15th century, when the Bratwurst Purity Law outlawed the use of rancid, wormy or pustulated meat. These days Bratwursts are generally served at food stands, where they are mechanically sliced into medallions, smothered with a sweet, rust-colored condiment called “curry ketchup” and sprinkled with bland curry powder. When not eaten as Currywurst, a long, uncut Bratwurst is placed in a bun comically small for the task.

Currywurst is about as adventurous as German food gets, at least in terms of seasonings, which more typically consist of pickling spices and caraway seeds. For the longest time, Germans viewed foreign gastronomy with a mixture of suspicion and envy. Garlic wasn’t successfully introduced to the German palate until the 1970s, with the arrival of guest workers, and Italian and other Mediterranean foods didn’t gain in popularity until the late ‘80s. As far as embracing the legendary brilliance of French cuisine, the border between the two nations is apparently more porous to armored tanks.

In many ways, German food hasn’t changed much since the days of Tacitus, who described it as “simple.” At its core, German cuisine is comfort food (usually pork) meant to stick to one’s ribs. Eating isn’t a very sensuous affair: a meal is served all at once and not so much savored as consumed. At first I thought it was just one of my wife’s endearing quirks; then I noticed that her friends are just as likely to finish a meal before I’ve emptied my first glass of wine.

When ordering meat in a restaurant, I’ve never been asked how I’d like it done. Apparently, there is no German equivalent for “medium-rare.” More than once I’ve pulled a leathery roast crusted with creosote out of my mother-in-law’s oven, only to be asked to slice it through the middle to ensure that it’s fully cooked.

They say food opens the door to one’s heart, but it also provides entry to, and, more important, an understanding of, one’s culture. This is particularly resonant in Germany, where the post-World War II generations have actively discarded symbols of their notorious past. But while three Reichs have come and gone, German food remains stubbornly traditional. At its heart has always been the butcher.

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