22 November 2011
Examples of the Art Nouveau colony, Mathildenhöhe, which is preserved in Darmstadt, Germany, and taken during my travels in Germany in October 2005.
Architect Peter Behrens’ design for the front of his home, 1901
Designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich, 1900-1901
One of the marvelous legacies of family life is the “willing” of recipes—especially recipes that are entwined in the ethos of one’s ancestry. But there are recipes for dining, and there are recipes for behavior and traditions. Whenever we had a meal with my mother, we could be sure that a dramatic edge would accompany the menu. Sometimes the theatrics were entertaining, and at others you just wanted to wish them away.
With our German-Jewish genes came not only fabulous cuisine, but also spicy dialogue. Often it was a challenge to the taste buds to rise above the banter, which always existed. Still there was always lots of food (too much—definitely the Jewish-mother syndrome) and hours of meaningful conversations. Sometimes tension interrupted the flow. It was so easy for her to make a mountain out of a mole hill. Even so she loved to schmooze, and she certainly did not want to miss a blessed thing.
In her younger days she was an accomplished cook. Probably her success in the kitchen benefited from her artistic skills. But it was more than love of food and feeding her clan that was important to her. She had to do it the “right” way. She lived through a time that savored fine dining. When you sat at her table, you were steeped in ambience. The table was set with the amenities that made her credo come alive: “gracious living.” It was her motto to the finale, which made us love her even more.
Good breeding and table manners were not fleeting in my mother’s daily life; they were emblematic of her generation and daily living. She rarely digressed from the “white-glove-test” mentality. It all fit into a lifestyle that she could not release, and did not want to forget.
Before my mother passed away at eighty-five in the early days of 2005 I spent many moons creating, researching, and filling the branches and leaves of my maternal family tree. Ninety-eight per cent of my maternal ancestors were from Southern Bavaria, a region that I decided to visit. With good fortune my first cousin (on my paternal side) lives in Freiburg, Germany, which is on the western edge of the country and eastern border of France. I was longing to return to Europe, and also seeking emotional shoring from the loss of a parent. Almost a year after her death the trip became a reality.
My cousin and her husband were enthusiastic about my pilgrimage to see the homeland of my ancestors. I wanted to feel and sense the waft of their tap roots. Destinations included Darmstadt, Germany, where my great, great grandparents, Sarah Bamberger and Lewes Lauer lived before they immigrated to Baltimore, Maryland. I also wanted to see the small town, Heidingsfeld (south of Frankfurt-au-Main), where my great, great-uncle Elkan Drey was born. He married one of Sarah and Lewes’ daughters. Another destination was Uhrwiller, France, where my mother’s great-grandfather, Wolf Dryfus, was born (France was Germany at the time my relatives lived in Uhrwiller). His daughter also married one of the Lauers’ five daughters. With my cousin’s know-how of German and Germany, my hopes were realized. My relatives’ stories can be told another time. Each arrived in New York City by early 1850s, and made their way south to Baltimore. Their tales make stellar narratives. (In the Lens section are a few images from the German leg of the trip)
Early research about the cities of my relatives’ birthplaces enticed me even more. From an art history and cultural viewpoint I was longing to visit Darmstadt where a famous art colony from the Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) period is preserved. It was at its height between 1899-1914, and foreshadowed the birth of modern art. I convinced my hosts to join me on the journey, and was a feast for our eyes, spirits and souls. Understandably, I was more enthusiastic about being in the city of my DNA.
So why am I thinking about the branches on my family tree? As Thanksgiving nears, I am reminded of one of the gifts from my German background: sauerkraut. Yep, that holiday staple. And it’s all thanks to the great wave of Germans immigrants that built downtown Baltimore in the mid-nineteenth through the beginning of the twentieth century.
President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, and Baltimore’s population was twenty-five per cent German. During those early Thanksgiving meals sauerkraut was part of their festivities. Eventually the vegetable’s usage spread, and became engrained in Baltimore’s culinary history.
From my vantage point there is no holiday that surpasses Thanksgiving. We are–as the name connotes–being thankful. And the gifts are the intrinsic kind such as the ritual of sauerkraut shared with loved ones present and not.
Of course, even with the diffusion of descendants across our vast country, there are tons of people who never heard about this tradition. But this Thursday on this family-centric occasion, we will miss my mother, but savor sauerkraut as a necessity for a successful meal and its symbolism of our familial heritage. Happy holiday.