Updated: Sep 11, 2022
My absolute favorite experience as a caterer is when a client or guest comes up to me, in almost childlike wonder, because the aroma and taste of my food triggered a happy, positive memory! Without any conscious thought -- from deep within the mind -- one bite triggers immediate gustatory and olfactory nostalgia. We have instantly transported them to their treasured past, and the serendipitousness of the trip beams right through their contagious smiles!
I will always be blessed when hearing pleasantly shocked guests fondly reminisce of times gone by:
"Your food reminded me of my grandparents...being at their house...visiting with family...holidays spent together...I can hardly find this in the States...just like my Oma made it...I haven't eaten this in years...you found just the right bier...I can feel just what it was like sitting in the Alps during my travels ages ago...nobody makes this anymore...I never learned to cook this from my mom and now she's gone...I used to order this when we were stationed in Germany..."
So how does this relate to Omas & Opas? Well, I suppose you could say I was partly raised by my maternal Grandparents. We lived in the same town for about 11 years of my childhood. For a handful of years, I could even walk through the woods right over to their house. We shared everyday dinners and holidays whenever we could. Their home was the one constant in my upbringing as a military dependant with all of its change of duty stations, moves, and life's ups and downs. Grandpa even visited us when we lived in northern Italy for three years, taking us to visit Germany and Austria when I was around age 11 or 12.
My grandmother was German, and we all called her Ama (instead of Oma, thanks to the 1st grandchild's pronunciation which stuck) and her first-generation German immigrant mother lived with her. My grandfather was English, Lithuanian, and Latvian. They had been stationed at least twice in Germany, so for all intents and purposes...the household was German. Who was Grandpa to argue with two opinionated German women running things?
The food my grandparents served was heavily influenced by their German backgrounds. We had blaukraut or rotkohl at every holiday, which we just called red cabbage. Someone in the family is always assigned the important duty of making it. When I walk into my Mom's house as an adult, from the first distinct clovey note of cabbage that hits my nose, it is like walking into a portal of memories that wash over me, from as far back as I can remember. Whenever I smell it simmering, I am taken back to those happy family dinners. Now that red cabbage recipe has made it at least five generations down to my children, and I peel the tart apples for it the same way I watched my Omas do!
Families always gather at the table, and food is clearly one of my love languages (a language I study hard as an adult, ha). We'd have one of Grandpa's favorites as a treat: fried potato pancakes with applesauce and sour cream. I only later learned that they are actually kartoffelpuffer or latkes. Pork and sauerkraut were often simmering on the stove. You could always count on a garden fresh salad made every night by Grandpa. I still make my Ama's burgers with caramelized onions and buttered noodles, which I discovered in Germany as frickadellen and spätzle. We had platters of cold cuts and a full spread on the table for lunch including a side of cottage cheese mixed with sour cream (their version of quark?). Real butter belongs on every sandwich! My grandmas ate liverwurst and blood & tongue sausage when they could find it. We knew the little gemütlich afternoon tradition of kaffeeklatsch with friends ~ kaffee und kuchen!
Into my early 20's, I thought every family grew up with bier steins, German drinking records for singing and dancing at parties, and red cabbage at every holiday. But we get older and busier, maybe thinking we are "cooler" now. Who has time for visiting Grandparents and carrying on the old-fashioned traditions of our family? We tire of the repeated family stories and often unsolicited advice (and, oh, how often they were right!). We might opt for trendier cuisines and company. Essentially, we take for granted the love and presence of our Grandparents and heritage.
There are no words to describe the holes in my heart when I lost them both about a decade ago. What I would trade for a day with them now -- an afternoon at a German fest, or simple weeknight supper to catch up! To walk in the door to those nostalgic smells of dinner cooking on the stove. Grandpa chopping veggies and Ama fussing over pots. To bring my children over to visit one more time. To hear the family stories once again (the details of which have become frustratingly foggy in time) and to laugh over drinks...
On a bier and food tour of Munich a few years ago, we were presented a brotzeitteller (literally "bread-time-plate") in a Hofbrauhaus bierkeller. I didn't know it at the time, but I had been training my whole life for this moment. I am a firm believer in traveling through food and trying as much as possible, so I dove right in...while skeptical tourists were more hesitant with unfamiliar looking foods. The music of my childhood played in the background. As we chatted and sipped some of the best lager bier in the world, I nibbled the classic aufschnitt and gherkin. Instinctively, I thickly buttered a slice of brown bread, spread it with some pate-looking food, and topped it with an onion ring before a taking a hearty bite. My palate recognized that it was braunschweiger, which I hadn't had in over twenty years! Out of nowhere tears instantly poured down my face; I wept and laughed.
My baffled husband couldn't understand what could be so upsetting in this little moment of heaven. I explained that a single bite of one of my Ama's favorite foods connected me to her through space and time in a way that blindsided me with emotion. I was a kid at their table again for that brief second while simultaneously being a verklempt adult in a German restaurant with my husband. My tears were made of familiar love and happiness, which poured from my heart and down my cheeks. I remembered my grandparents and their eternal love for each other and our family. They felt present in a way that words fail to express. I swallowed the simple meat and bread, which I'm sure needed the help of a few gulps of bier, and that moment has been impressed on me since.
Maybe your olfactory memories aren't so dramatic! But I encourage you to experience them when you can. So call or go visit your Grandparents! Give them the respect they're due, and then some extra hugs. Cook with and for them. Take tons of photos and videos! Write down the stories, recipes, and family traditions. Pass them on to your kids and share the food with folks at your next gathering.
Helping people connect to each other and the past through food is a very large part of why I painstakingly do what I do! Contact me at Hausfrau Catering if you'd like to be transported to a little slice of German paradise, as authentic as possible here in the US, maybe just like your family has known for generations.