Well, it’s been a quiet week here in Lake Wobegone, my hometown, out on the edge of the prairie.
Language school is now in full swing, stripping me of the better part of my Tuesday and Thursday evenings. This would not be nearly so bad if it were not for public transportation being a wretched waste of time. As a novelty it is quite entertaining, but as a necessity it is fast turning itself into a bore. Classes start at 18:30, but in order to catch the train to catch the right bus, I leave the house at around 17:00, with usually only a bite to eat beforehand. When I come home, sometime between 21:00 and 21:30, I am pretty hungry. So more often that not I meander into the kitchen and fix myself a quick peanut butter and Nutella sandwich.
Peanut butter is a sort of novelty here, in that it is definitely considered an American food. I never used to be a great fan of it, but a special fondness has begun to grow within me for its creamy goodness, nurtured no doubt by an absence of packed lunches in my youth, thus sparing me from an early overkill of PB&J sandwiches. Creamy peanut butter is definitely the way to go, for multiple reasons. First off, in is an irreplaceable ingredient in peanut butter cookies. These also never used to be among my favorites, due no doubt to the notable absence of chocolate, but I have recently found them to be a particularly fine accompaniment to tea. Also, why would anyone want something called “butter” to be chunky? What if the margarine companies caught on? Imagine the advertisements: Can’t believe it’s not butter? Now, new, improved, and even better than butter, it’s Chunky style! No no, I think not.
Toast is also considered an invention of English speaking countries. The Germans find it a novelty to be saved for special occasions. Sadly, they do not seem to understand the proper nature of toast. In spite of having perfectly fine (nay, I daresay more than perfectly fine) bread readily accessible and available for purchase at any of the nearest bakeries (which are more plentiful than Starbucks in America), they choose to buy authentic bagged bread from a grocery store. And I mean the processed, substance-less kind (albeit usually the sort that has meager amounts of grain poked into it in order to maintain a charade of nutrition). They seem to think that this is some sort of special bread specifically created for toast. They do not understand that Americans eat toast not because we only have toast bread, but because toast is the only way to make our bread worth eating. Granted, most German bread is too dense and moist for truly good toast, but to go out of their way to buy bad bread… and then to think this is a treat? I do not understand this.
This past week or so also contained a number of culinary mishaps for which I have become quite infamous. Bear in mind, no one questions my ability to bake. They are in awe of my apple pie and peanut butter cookies. But I am not yet a cook. I forget to put salt in the potatoes. I once nearly mistook green cardamom for a sort of nut, and would have thrown a handful into the salad I was making had I not had the forethought to try some first. (Biting down on three whole pods of cardamom ranks very high on my list of “most unpleasant experiences of my life.”) The most recent was not so much a mishap as an incident. I came down for lunch last Saturday to find the kitchen smelling vaguely of a farm yard. I kept catching whiffs of some strong odor as I ran about, collecting cutlery, glasses, soda water, and apple juice for the table. It was not till I was seated that I realized the stench (it had grown into a stench by this point) was coming from the meal I was about to be served. Jakob rolled for the blessing, we prayed, held hands and wished each other Guten Appetit, and then Markus served me noodles covered in a creamy white sauce. The meal looked harmless enough; and yet, there was the smell. I hesitated, waiting for Andrea or Markus to taste the food and announce that something had gone bad, but both ate as if nothing were the matter. Die Kinder also ate, seemingly unperturbed. I worked up the nerve, and tried a bite. I could feel my lungs restricting.
I set down my fork and took a sip of the soda water/apple juice mixture that we have at every meal. I tried to eat again. If I was very careful, I could avoid smelling the food as I ate it, and this deadened the taste somewhat. And yet, after a few more bites I had to reach for my glass again.
I was trying to be discrete.
Markus and Andrea have more than once mentioned that Americans are over polite about food. Every meal is the great, fabulous, absolutely super. They say that Americans like everything so much that it is hard to tell when they honestly enjoy a thing. Now, it is true that I usually try to compliment what I can, and when I cannot, I remain silent. The Germans consider being honest about your opinions a good thing, and I try not to lie. But I also would like to avoid being outright insulting. And yet, this meal was taxing my politeness.
By this time I had located the source of the taste, and found that it came from the creamy white sauce. This was unfortunate. Had it come from something else, I may have been able to avoid it, but the sauce coated all my noodles. At last, I could bear it no longer.
“Andrea,” I asked, trying to sound casual. “What is in this sauce?”
“Gorgonzola,” she replied, and began explaining to me how it melted down so nicely, and made such a smooth sauce, and how she really liked it. “What do you think?” she asked.
This was a tough question. “Oh, it’s very strong. My mother really likes strong cheeses. I’m trying to learn to get used to them myself.”
Conversation continued between Andrea and Markus, and once more I tried to focus my attention toward the task of finishing my meal. If I could get through one plate, I could skip seconds, and grab something extra to eat during break. Sadly, I had no such luck. Markus, being the perceptive person that he is, turned to me after another minute or so and said, “From your comments I glean that you do not like Gorgonzola.”
I was trapped. He brought it up so directly, that there was no way I could avoid the question without lying. And so, red in the face, stammering a little, and avoiding Andrea’s eye I had to admit that no, for the first time I really did not like something she had cooked, and I really could not finish it.
As it turned out, Andrea was just fine with this. Markus was happy to finish my plate, and I fetched myself a banana. Andrea assured me that I should not feel compelled to finish something I really did not like, so long as I did not expect her to fix me something new, which of course is quite reasonable. Of course, this, Andrea’s one and only failure, had everything to do with my personal distaste for Gorgonzola, and absolutely nothing to do with her cooking, which is by all means quite good. I had fennel this week for the first time. I could not have told you what it looked like before, whole fennel at least, but now I think I am quite familiar with it. It has a distinctive taste. And Andrea has a recipe for pumpkin soup that I have to get from her before I go, because it is quite high on my list of favorite soups of all time.
And that’s the news from Lake Wobegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.