by Erica Gingerich
So Thanksgiving is finally done and gone. You’ve crashed back to earth following the commercial sugar high from Black Friday shopping and the toxic glycemic effect it had on your credit cards.
Hopefully everyone’s packed their leftovers into the freezer for reuse at a Christmas or Christmas-like dinner (or to survive the post-apocalyptic nuclear winter following the Mayan calendar meltdown on December 21st), but if you haven’t, well: who’s more well versed than Europeans in the art of taking old things and reusing and reusing and reusing them for a couple of centuries or millennia? Whether it be Italians keeping the crumbling ruins of a Roman-era apartment building together with emergency mortar infusions made of old spaghetti alle vongole, or the way a cheese isn’t really considered edible in France until it’s turned blue and semi-liquefied—Europeans know best what to do with food that the picky eaters in America (with their palettes deadened to “real” food and attuned to the monochromatic “flavors” of McDonald’s, damn it) might reject as rotten or spoiled:
- Scandinavians and other Baltic Sea region dwellers, for example, have evolved their very traditional culinary treat of pickled herring to incorporate Thanksgiving-style turkey / Christmas goose leftovers (or, when turkey and goose are not available, then the reindeer jerky that Laplanders trade with them in exchange for IKEA “Glimma” tealights and H&M underwear). Place leftovers in a barrel with herring, and allow to ferment until the Yuletide and / or New Year’s Eve.
It’s a very fresh, light, and effervescent pickling that I’m certain even American palettes would really take a liking to. However, to truly experience this dish in all its glory, you’ve also got to get your hands on a bottle of something called “Riga Black Balsam,” a Latvian specialty that involves infusing pure vodka (or any high-octane home brew) with a secret blend of herbs, spices, and select tree barks.
The balsam not only mitigates the sometimes unpleasant effects of the herring, which continues to ferment even after it hits your GI tract, but can also be used to clean lime off the toilet bowl and bathroom tiles in a pinch. The shit is so potent, in fact, that five minutes after arriving home from a trip to Riga back in 1998 and promptly unpacking and then dropping a souvenir bottle of the stuff on my kitchen floor, I discovered a gorgeous wooden floor beneath a layer of what I had assumed to be really old linoleum. It wasn’t—the Black Balsam had eaten away at the thick layers of varnish faster than anything they sell at the Home Depot could’ve.
- Germans just mix all the leftovers on the table together (even the tablecloth goes in; it’s good “Ballaststoffe,” or roughage, which is one of the three key components of Germanic cuisine alongside pork knuckles and sauerkraut) and make it into a sausage called “Dankbarkeitswuerst” (literally, “thankfulness sausage”). Again, this sausage can be produced with turkey, goose, and any kind of soluble or insoluble fiber left on the table after a big meal.
- Meanwhile in Austria, one of the world’s largest producers of Kurbiskernoel, or pumpkin seed oil, the locals prefer savory pumpkin dishes to what they feel is the “over sugarization” of American cuisine. Why make a pumpkin pie when you can make a pumpkin soup? Any pumpkin leftovers—or squash—are put into a blender, heated until just the perfect lip-scorching temperature that soup needs to be to truly fight off the winter chill, drizzled with the viscous black pumpkin seed oil (do not mix this bottle up with the Riga Balsam—together with plants from the Curcubita genus, the Balsam forms a napalm-like chemical bond not suitable for dinner parties), and served before the main course.
- In Italy, all the leftovers from any meal—Thanksgiving or Christmas being no exception!—are dumped onto some dough and made into a pizza. For any leftovers older than eight days, it is recommended to make a calzone instead.
A lot of Europeans probably don’t understand why Americans feel they have anything to be thankful for whatsoever at this time of year. Thus the reason they don’t really understand an American holiday like Thanksgiving any more than they get Halloween or the 4thof July.
True, we may have the strongest economy and military on the planet, we have stores that are open 24 hours a day… and we have Hawaii, Hollywood, Snooki, and Nicki Minaj, too. But we don’t have socialized health care (yes, blah blah blah, some people like to call Obama a socialist and Obamacare socialized health care, but really, it’s just not). Nor do we have six-plus weeks of paid vacation, and neither do we have the luxury of staying at university until we’re 35 and then retiring at 50—as we would if we happened to live in a place like Greece.
So while they may not understand our holidays, many Europeans secretly love all things American and try to adapt American holidays to their own cultures, especially if said holidays involve copious amounts of meat, glutinous sauces and carbohydrate-rich side dishes and desserts—like Thanksgiving or Christmas. Or the Shakey’s Buffet, which has never been successfully replicated, to our knowledge, outside of the United States.
But you do also have the naysayers who rail against the “crass Americanization of Christmas,” especially since grocery stores over here have started stocking German Christmas cookies, “Lebkuchen,” (a kinda-sorta gingerbready soft cookie thingy that doesn’t have enough fat and sugar in it to have gained traction in the US market), in October. “It’s wrong! It’s too early!” they lament.
You’d think that in a country that has a depressing dearth of things to celebrate between the end of summer and Christmas (okay, not counting the “German Day of Unity” on October 3rd of each year to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and then German reunification in 1990—an historical event which even today many former Western Germans are still dubious about, anyway), they’d welcome a bit of premature, pre-season holiday cheer with open arms.
Besides, I tell my German friends, try living in America, where we have Christmas stores that are open year round! Christmas shopping in June really doesn’t feel right. But October? That’s, like, practically Advent already! But no. When a recent friend and former colleague of mine made a Facebook admission back in October that he had bought his first package of German holiday “Lebkuchen” and other fiber-rich Christmas goodies there was so much negative feedback from his FB community that I think he was actually blocked from using the site for a few days. Okay, maybe I am exaggerating a bit here, but there was a distinct feeling of mutual consternation at the fact that the start of the official Christmas cookie season kept getting moved to earlier and earlier in the year. Thorsten, if you’re reading this, I want you to know that all of your American friends are with you on this one—if the Christmas cookies are there, what are you supposed to do? Ignore them and walk by?
And people like my German Boyfriend #2, (with whom I am still very close friends), balk at the crass American commercialization of love that is contemporary Valentine’s Day. “Schokolade ist nicht for making hearts vit! It is for making SACHERTORTE!” He refused to buy me anything for Valentine’s Day. Ever. The day after or the day before, fine. But no knee-jerk romanticism for him! German Boyfriend #1, with whom I only spent one Valentine’s Day, laughed in my face when I complained that he hadn’t even gotten me flowers for V-Day.
“I’ve already slept with you. Why do I need to buy you flowers?”
I thought I had made a clever trade up when German Boyfriend #3 (and Husband #1) actually presented me with a box wrapped in pink and tied with a huge red ribbon on our first Valentine’s Day together. But when I opened it to reveal a hand mixer instead of lingerie or chocolate (or a diamond ring), I realized that in his own special way, #3 was also protesting against an American woman’s attempt to define and commodify love. A German’s practical nature almost always comes shining through, even when he’s giving his girlfriend a romantic gift: why would she want a mere box of chocolates or a piece of jewelery when she could have a German-engineered small kitchen appliance?
I know, I know, Valentine’s Day isn’t exclusively an American thing, and you actually can buy chocolate hearts in Germany. But as with Christmas and Halloween, it took Americans to really max out the marketing and retailing potential of these traditional celebrations. But I think Europeans are finally starting to catch up; I just heard from a German friend that he encountered his first-ever year-round Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) here in Bavaria. Maybe they’re doing it to cater to all the American tourists who want to get a taste of German-style Christmas when they come to Munich for Oktoberfest. And by the way, if there’s going to be bitching about marketing tricks utilized to enhance the profitability of a traditional celebration or holiday, then why call it “Oktoberfest” when it actually starts in September, huh?