Guest Blog: CHOCOLATE and SAUERKRAUT
The yellow behemoth in my kitchen has three identical cupboards each featuring a no-nonsense tulip design, a “moisture controlled” breadbox, and a disintegrating drawer so waxy, ancient house keys are embedded into the bottom of it, like flies in amber. This is my DDR vintage pantry: my prize possession. I removed it from a bona-fide, communist era garden house in Halle and moved it on up to a deluxe apartment in Berlin. The first time I saw “old yeller”, it practically swallowed the one-room house it was stored in. Swarmed with bug’s nests and cobwebs, the garden house looked as though it had been abandoned mid-meal, as if a radio patched in fuzzy information about German unification and everyone in the garden house slapped on their running shoes and made for the border. The pots and pans still had sauce in them. The chipped white pitcher was caked at the bottom with the dregs of summer wine from long ago.
I felt like an archaeologist discovering a new society, and because I was so uninformed about the history of the German Democratic Republic, I looked to these artifacts to convey some sort of picture of what life was like then. As my friend Ursula (who grew up in West Berlin but often visited family who remained in the East) says of life over the wall, “It was very orange, brown and purple.” And this statement bears out well given my particular cache of objet du DDR. The plates are white with orange rings, the casserole has brown flowers with orange centers, the teapot is brown with purple flowers, and the teacups depict orange flowers with dirt brown roots. I love these dishes and find them cheerfully retro. They do not inspire in me the same upchuck reflex they do in people who actually used them growing up. These people have very modern kitchens with very lavish or very minimal dishes. Their walls are red, beige, or gray. They keep the orange, brown and purple relegated to a sweater stripe or dishtowel.
In my apartment, I keep our weekly collection of fruits, vegetables and bread rolls in two deeply scratched white metal basins absconded from the very same garden house I got all the dishes and the pantry from. I picture happy babies being washed in these basins, stacks of dirty dishes soaking out their stains after a hearty lunch, or a basin full of cabbage leaves shocked after a quick blanching in ice-cold water, later to be turned into meat-filled cabbage rolls. When my mangoes go moldy after two days, I imagine it is because some remnant of the communist Oma who once owned these basins, does not approve of my new world tastes. My cosmic proof for this theory is that the beets and potatoes never go bad.
It’s true that the force of the people that used to own these objects has a particularly strong effect on me. At first, I thought everything I cooked from the pantry retained a funny pantry taste. The couscous, chickpea flour, even the peanut butter had a musty, dirty tang that unmistakably originated from the communist cupboard. I began to buy things to appease the pantry gods—honey, gherkins, Backpulver, dried beans—and these things seemed to taste fine. I don’t know if it was the amount of time the pantry had to air out or if certain cupboards have their own terroir and just refuse to submit to new food trends.
Recently, my mother sent me an industrial sized bag of American Halloween candy. The bouquet of artificial cherry and apple mingled with Hershey’s chocolate to create a smell so redolent of my childhood Halloweens, I was tempted to eat the candy in a polyester princess costume just to complete the sensory regression. I made myself sick on peanut butter cups and Twizzlers that night and then stuck the rest of the bag in the commie-cupboard so I wouldn’t be tempted to sugar gorge again. Now when I open the pantry it smells sickeningly sweet, which is not exactly an improvement over the musty cellar perfume it used to have. But, it is telling that with just a small amount of American capitalist candy, the staunch scent of communism has completely died away.
(Sabrina Small was born in Los Angeles, California in 1980. The eldest child of a food obsessed, Eastern European Jewish family; Sabrina developed an early love of all things culinary and decadent. In 2006, she received a Masters in Gastronomy from Boston University. She has worked as a line cook, fromagier, caterer, food instructor and writer. She moved to Berlin in the summer of 2007 with her boyfriend and has since been exploring her culinary roots and getting drunk a lot.)