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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)

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

“People might think it’s funny for a butcher to be vegetarian, particularly in Germany, where everything is so regimented,” he says. “But we live in the modern world and we have more options than before. For me it’s a question of tolerance. This has not been an easy transition for my wife, Dagmar, and me. We are like Hansel and Gretel holding hands in the forest.”

Axel walks back to the refrigerator and pulls out leftovers from yesterday’s vegetarian offerings: a zucchini, leek and tomato quiche. “I am teaching myself to be a vegetarian cook. It is all learning by doing.”

He hands me a spoonful of the quiche. It’s delicious.

I am whizzing toward stuttgart on a high-speed train with Gero Jentzsch, the plucky 36-year-old spokesman for the German Butchers Association. “If you look at the number of butchers leaving the profession each year, it’s like a countdown that can’t be stopped,” Gero tells me in impeccable English. “I imagine the hemorrhaging will stop when there are 8,000 to 10,000 left and the profession rediscovers its position in the marketplace. Where else are you going to go for high-quality meats and artisan sausages?”

I had spoken by phone with Gero two weeks earlier, trying to put Axel’s struggle and the rapid decline of Germany’s most iconic profession into context. “A vegetarian butcher, eh?” Gero had said. “Well, it’s an interesting business model for a challenging time. Most butchers are branching out into catering, cafés or organic products—so-called ‘green meat.’ Everyone must specialize if they want to survive. I guess selling vegetables is one way to do that. We could all use more balance in our diet, and I know plenty of overweight butchers who might benefit from eating more vegetables. But I have a feeling it means we’ve lost yet another butcher.”

To gain a better understanding of the history of the profession, Gero had recommended a visit to the German butchers museum in a village near Stuttgart. An ardent medievalist who, when he can, spends weekends in drafty castles dressed in artfully tailored period costumes, Gero speaks excitedly about the museum’s collection of ornate treasure chests, which played a prominent role at secretive and highly ritualized candlelit gatherings of the medieval butchers’ guilds.

“It’s difficult to overemphasize the critical role the master butcher has played in Germany’s cultural heritage,” he tells me. “France has its cheese and cheese makers; Germany has its sausages and sausage makers.”

Throughout our conversation, Gero draws a distinction between meat and sausage, which I had always thought of as one and the same. “Meat is meat,” Gero explains, “but sausage carries the culture.”

Sausage permeates German culture at nearly every level, much like rice in China. The German language is peppered with sausage sayings, such as Es ist mir Wurst—“It’s sausage to me.” (“It’s all the same to me.”) And while Richard Wagner worked passionately with mythical Germanic archetypes in his dramatic operas, the average German is less likely to feel a connection to Lohengrin, Siegfried or Brunhild than he is to a far more popular theatrical legend: Hans Wurst, the pants-dropping wiseacre who once dominated hundreds of German plays.

“Sausages are recipes, and these recipes reflect who we are,” Gero adds. “In the North, [people] have always been closely linked to the sea, so it’s not surprising that they eat sardine sausages.” Bavaria has always been a conservative region heavily tied to the land. They tend to eat very traditional sausages that use more parts of the animal. For example, Sülze, a jellied sausage made with pickles and flesh from a pig’s head, that has a crisp, sour taste.

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