Monday, October 11, 2010

Food Culture Schock

Backstory for this post, which should be dated to last Wednesday: Traveling can be difficult for me, not because of language difficulties or having to navigate an unfamiliar system, but because it disturbs my usual eating routine. (Mom, you can stop laughing now.) The stress of a late train combined with a missed meal is enough to give me a sour stomach, so I try to pack snacks and Tums. Unfortunately, when traveling from Dortmund to Dresden at the end of September, I got very hungry for dinner well before my layover in Leipzig, when I had planned to grab a bite to eat. I normally try to avoid the train restaurant, as they overcharge. But the Tums weren’t working, so I broke down and ordered curry wurst and a large Sprite from the BordBistro. By the time I got to Dresden that evening, my stomach was thankfully no longer tying itself into knots.

However, when I woke up in the apartment the next morning, the only food I had was a couple of apples and some chocolate. Grocery shopping was therefore high on my list of errands to run. My landlady/roommate had recommended a general grocery store a little ways down the street, so off I set with my tote bag and a list in my head with four goals: 1) not to be hungry, 2) to have variety, 3) to have fresh fruits and vegetables, and 4) not to spend a lot of money, since I hadn’t received my first stipend payment yet.

I also didn’t want to buy a lot of food because of my limited capacity for storing it. The state of our kitchen was probably the largest food-related shock I received: first, we have only a minifridge + freezer, a third of which is mine. This probably amounts to a tenth of the cold storage I am used to (about the size of my fruit or vegetable drawer at home) and means that I will have to shop more frequently, as Europeans are wont to do. Second, the stove is electric--no helpful little flames to gauge the heat.  In addition, there are two large frying pans and an assortment of pot lids, but apparently only two large soup pots. I had brought a steamer basket all the way from home, because I figured my roommate(s) wouldn’t have one; but once I got here I had to buy a vegetable peeler, too. Her kitchen may not be sophisticated, but boy, can she cook wild mushrooms!

Anyway, one way not to spend a lot of money on food is to buy in bulk. At home we tend to cook maybe twice a week and eat leftovers reheated in the microwave. Not only don’t I currently have much cold storage space for leftovers, but we don’t have a microwave, either. So what I do cook and store to eat later has to go back on the stove. Small wonder many Europeans shop, cook, and eat fresh food more than Americans. (Or in my roommate’s case, eat while out and about when working or visiting friends.) Probably I should learn to cook for one—I don’t say “re-learn,” because as a bachelorette, I either ate out of cans or cooked one large batch and ate from that. Raw ingredients tend to come in large packages, and it’s tough for me (who largely cooks without measuring implements) to figure out what a single serving will be while cooking. Probably I should buy a smaller pot to make preparing smaller meals easier.

Sooo there I was, in the grocery store. In the produce section I got some carrots, potatoes, lettuce, and a bunch of soup vegetables. So far, so good, although I paid something ridiculous like 2,50 Euros for the zucchini, because at the time I didn’t know where else in the neighborhood to shop—so much for the 50-cent beauties from my Farmer’s Market!

Then I hit the dairy case. I like dairy products, and at home, I have particular kinds and brands that I buy. Here was a whole new superabundance of choices, and I didn’t know how to choose what I wanted. For instance, the fat contents differ here: instead of whole, 2%, 1%, and skim, they have >40%, 1,5%, <0.3% fat. There were also different price gradients: organic foods were marked “Bio,” and although I sometimes prefer those back home, I didn’t think I could afford them on my pre-stipendium budget. I settled for “Fitness” or “Basis” when I could. While the pink “Basis” tags obviously marked budget items, I’m not entirely sure what makes a product worthy of the “Fitness” label. Baffled by the kinds, brands, and variety of milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, etc., I was happy to find one familiar product from previous trips, Kräuterquark. It’s sort of like cream cheese with herbs, and it’s particularly yummy on sandwiches or Brötchen.

Here you can see the results of my first shopping trip, for the grand total of EUR 32.19 (= $44.20), which is pretty good! Elsewhere I picked up a loaf of pumpkin seed bread, a little chocolate, and a small round of camembert for 85 cents. I planned on yogurt, muesli, fruit, and orange juice for breakfast; sandwich, carrots, and hard-boiled egg for lunch; apple, peanut butter, and Butterkeks (like graham crackers) for snack; and soup, bread, and cheese for dinner. Also planned dinners: a vegetarian Indian curry with chickpeas and potatoes, and a mixed-bean couscous dish I have yet to invent.

As a New Year’s Resolution this year I have tried to increase my repertoire of vegetarian recipes, and I specifically cut lunch meat out of my diet. Having so recently been quite hungry, I decided to go ahead and get a package of cheap lunch meat. In the US deli meats can already be something of a mystey as to their ingredients, but in German they are even more so. I settled on smoked chicken breast that came in an appealing package and wasn’t too expensive, but Michael Pollan would have had a conniption. While traveling for the Germany/Dutch history of medicine and science conference on food in Maastricht a couple of weekends ago, I finally got around to reading In Defense of Food, in which Pollan argues for the aphorism: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” His rules of thumb for grocery shopping include no more than five ingredients in packaged foods, no unpronounceable ingredients, and no added corn or soy by-products like high fructose corn syrup. Alas, at home I discovered my chicken slices came with preservatives (duh) and Kartoffelstärke (potato starch). The highly artificial scalloped shape could have been another tip-off that this was not “food” I was buying... In the future I will either skip the meat or buy it from the Fleischerei (butcher shop). Even my Frucht-Muesli was not immune! The dried banana slices of this original health-food are made of "banana, coconut oil, sugar, honey, flavouring"; and the "apple powder" (??) consists of "apple, sugar, maize [sic--corn] starch". Guess I should splurge for “Bio” for that staple of my diet.

Interestingly, while on that gastronomically uncomfortable train ride from Dortmund to Dresden, I read an article in a great little book that anyone studying food history in Europe or the US really must read, from cover to cover. In their chapter in The Science and Culture of Nutrition, 1840-1940, David Smith and Malcolm Nicolson discuss the politics behind nutritional ignorance and welfare in England over the 20th century. When anyone complained that welfare reciptients suffered from poor nutrition, commentators largely on the right would argue that the poor just didn’t know how to shop wisely on a restricted budget and that they needed nutritional education, while voices largely on the left would argue that the governmental supplements were too low to healthfully feed a family. The authors were intrigued when, after World War II, left-leaning policy experts found it expedient to argue that workers didn’t know how best to eat on a shoe-string budget, because they were also arguing for the professionalization of the nutritional scientists who wanted to educate them. Here and elsewhere observers have pointed out that, sometimes, the food purchasing power of those at the bottom of the social ladder truly is restricted. Think of the fresh-food deserts in some American cities, and how a hamburger is cheaper than a head of broccoli almost everywhere. Despite knowing “what’s best for them,” those with little money to spend on food often choose to spend it on calories (hence my reversion to lunch meat) and the occasional comfort food (for me, peanut butter—more expensive than Nutella here!).

Those are some impressions from my first efforts at feeding myself here in Dresden. At the start of the next week, I happily discovered what amounts to a farmer’s market at Schillerplatz on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and (maybe?) Saturdays. That’s the public transit stop just on the other side of the bridge from my apartment. I had a steaming Rostbratwurst with spicy Senf (mustard) in a crusty Kaiserbrötchen there last week, and I’m pleased at the prospect of buying less from the grocery store and more from local vendors. Unfortunately, if I’m in the archives all day, I will probably end up buying most of my bread products and produce from the ubiquitous shops and stalls that seem to cluster around the tram stops. And of course, heaven forbid you should need something on a Sunday! Most shops here are still closed on Sundays, although sometimes the bakeries will be open. Once my finances are more stable and I get into a new routine, I will do another week-long food photo journal.

Addendum: in maybe my third shopping trip, I bought staples for 8 Euros + 10 Euros-worth of vegetables, which should last me most of a week. Add in a daily baked good (or 2), and it looks like I will be able to eat on about $30-40 a week, which sounds about right.

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