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New York revisits the German Table at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Why does there seem to be a resurgence in German and Austrian food in New York City?  Biergartens are popping up in various neighborhoods, charcuterie plates appear on the menus of many restaurants, and there’s even a Sausage Slam with beers by the Brooklyn Brewery taking place tonight.  More elegant cuisine can be had at places like Wallsé, and a trip to the Neue Galerie would not be complete without soaking in a bit of Central European café culture with a coffee and a slice of cake.  At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum last night, Mimi Sheraton, Kurt Gutenbrunner, Jeremy Schaller, and Joshua M. Bernstein (photo L-R) explored this topic with the help of Jane Ziegelman, host of the museum’s Culinary Conversations series (not in the photo).

German Foods Tasting Menu

Ms. Ziegelman began the discussion of this “new fascination with German and Austrian food” by briefly reflecting upon the history that New York City has had with German immigration.   “Kleindeutschland” (Little Germany), she said was the city’s first foreign language enclave.  In the 1860s, it extended from Division Street (now in Chinatown) north to 14th Street and from the East River piers to the Bowery.  Over 200,000 people lived there, nearly a quarter of the population at the time.  Their “gastronomic stage,” she highlighted, was the Bowery, which was the home of the “biergartens.”  One of the largest of these, The Atlantic Garden (located between Canal and Bayard Streets on Broadway) had a bowling alley, a shooting range, an all-female orchestra, and a dance hall.  It could accommodate 3,000 people serving them salads with meat, root vegetable dishes, sausages, and, of course, lots of beer.

Window of the museum’s new exhibit “Shoplife

Unlike other dining establishments in the city at the time, the German saloons were designed for families, not just for adults.  In addition to its more pungent cuisine with sharp sour, salty, and cured meat flavorings, the custom of lingering over the dinner table was also a puzzling one to the New York population, some of which would travel down to the Lower East Side to experience this culture, taking in a pint of lager and a plate of bratwurst.  Many German and Austrian food venues were set up in other parts of the city as well, including a rathskeller near City Hall and The Vienna Bakery at 12th Street and Broadway, which was famous for its coffee and Vienna rolls, added Ms. Sheraton.  These places stood out for their “convivial atmosphere and abundant home cooking,” explained Ms. Ziegleman.  One of the most well-known of these was the legendary Lüchow’s, which attracted luminaries and regular folks alike from all over the city.

Aufschnittplatte (cold cuts) from Schaller & Weber

East 86th Street was even known as “Bratwurst Boulevard,” added Jeremy Schaller, of butcher and charcuterie makers Schaller & Weber.  Being of Germany ancestry, I was really surprised to learn when I moved here that German and Austrian cooking and restaurants were once considered to be more haute cuisine than that of the French.  It wasn’t until I read William Grimes’ fascinating history Appetite City that I discovered this and began to appreciate more my culinary roots.  Part of the reason for this cooking falling out of favor, as was discussed last night, was due to Germany’s marred reputation following World Wars I and II.

Smoked Trout Palatschinken from Kurt Gutenbrunner

I live in Yorkville, which was once one of the epicenters of German food culture in the United States, and to where much of the Lower East Side German population emigrated after the sinking of the General Slocum, attracting visitors to the neighborhood who wanted to experience a bit of this cuisine at one of the many restaurants that used to exist here. Sadly, changing demographics and economic influences mean only a few of these places exist today.  Some of the food and tastes that were considered ethnic and very Germanic at one point in our culinary history have also become more integrated into the everyday diets of many of us, so that more traditional dishes have been co-opted and morphed from what they were as they found a place on the American table.  Schaller & Weber and The Heidelberg Restaurant are only a few of the institutions that survive of this thriving ethnic enclave.

Sweetbreads w Celery Root Puree & Black Trumpets from Kurt Gutenbrunner

Kurt Gutenbrunner offered his views on these developments and of the resurgence of these foods among the younger generation of restaurant-goers.  He sees that people are “more interested in German and Austrian cuisine right now; it’s cool to drink German wine.”  This was, he said very different from his experiences when he first came to the United States, during the period when this type of cooking was way out of favor among diners.  He said he is proud to promote the cooking of classic foods like good Sacher cake, weinerschnitzel, apfelstrudel, and spaetzle alongside making dishes that reflect the ingredients of his new homeland.  As he pointed out, the techniques of making these foods are still very important. The adoption of the custom of gathering with friends to pass the time at a biergarten (like the one that he created at The Standard Hotel) is one that brings together the older culture with the newer people who are embracing it. There is a positivity with biergartens in America right now.  It is part of a dialogue of cultural communication of which he is also very proud, he added.

Slice of Poppy Seed Gugelhupf from Kurt Gutenbrunner

Several other forces taking hold in the food pathways in America might also be adding to this, too, as the panelists mentioned.  Top-quality charcuterie products have been becoming increasingly popular, as Jeremy Schaller pointed out.  The “meatavore” sentiment, as he put it, has had people sampling cuts of meat and food items that are outside what they have typically grown up with and eaten.  Younger Germans and Austrians have also been delving into their culinary pasts, bringing some of their traditions to the United States where they set up stands at the local food markets.  It was brought up that maybe they don’t feel as hidebound by older cultural restrictions and perceptions which perhaps makes them more open to exploring their culinary history.  Whatever the reason may be, it is interesting to see the food scene in New York City reflect upon and emulate some of the German and Austrian traditions that it held more than 200 years ago while bringing them up to date for today’s dining crowds.

Buon appetito!

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