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Dedicated carvers? Waiters on horseback? Vegan nuns? It's all in 'Beyond Bratwurst'

HistoryUNESCO
The most influential German nun of the Middle Ages recommended fasting and the eating of green things.
In America, itinerant cabbage shredders went from door to door slicing cabbage for homemade sauerkraut.
In Germany, the potato was introduced to the rich as a decorative exotic plant from South America.

A new book on the history of German food arrived in my mailbox the other day. Not exactly the stuff of summer daydreams. Nevertheless, I picked it up, poured a glass of Riesling and started leafing through it. Before long, I was hooked.

For example, In “Beyond Bratwurst: A History of Food in Germany,” I read that while it was traditional from the 13th century onward for people to carry their own personal knives for use at the table, there was usually a dedicated trancheur, or carver, who would cut up roasts, following a highly elaborate technique, working in full view of the guests at the table.

Sounds to me like this could be the next big trend in dining in this century as well, given the new emphasis on whole animal butchery and the meat-centric menus at some restaurants.

And surely some enterprising restaurateur will pick up on this trend from the Middle Ages: "The service of food developed into an increasingly complex procedure, with servants sometimes kneeling or even working from horseback, and guests seated only on one side of the long table." Horseback? 

And though author Ursula Heinzelmann doesn't call it that, she traces early veganism back to the mystic Hildegarde von Bingen. “The most influential German nun of the Middle Ages” recommended fasting and “the eating of green things, viriditas, for vitality. Her favored grain was spelt, and she strongly advised against the consumption of pork, eel, duck, eggs, plums--and strawberries." Sound familiar?

Heinzelmann, a regular contributor to Slow Food and Gastronomica magazines, has devoted years to researching this book, one of the first in a new series called Food and Nations from London's Reaktion Books that explores the history and geography of food. 

She leads us in strict chronological order from the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages through the Roman Age, the early Middle Ages and so on to our day. You can, of course, read the book straight through, but I very much enjoyed dipping in and picking up things magpie fashion. 

I sat with my wine and learned about Strabo's Reichenau, a small fertile island at the west end of Lake Constance renowned for its vegetables and now a UNESCO World Heritage site that re-creates Benedictine abbot Walahfrid Strabo's garden from the early 9th century. That's just one of the “Culinary Places in Time” larded throughout the book. 

Through the pages of this clearly written and well-organized history, we can follow the craze for coffee and then sugar.

And then there's the potato’s introduction to the rich -- as a decorative exotic plant from South America. Few were that interested in eating it. At first. But by the second half of the 18th century, though, it is estimated that 50% of the population was sustained by potatoes. "Without potatoes,” writes Heinzelmann, “industrialization in Germany might not have happened.” 

And who knew that "in America, until the end of the Civil War, itinerant krauthobblers, cabbage-shredders, went from door to door slicing cabbage for homemade sauerkraut?" Heinzelmann knows that and much much more. 

Follow @sirenevirbila for more on food and wine.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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