Thursday, 14 August 2008

Handwritten Missives

My first encounter was as an exchange student. I was doing a course on German women writers in exile (ah, those were the days!) and the lecturer had chosen Ruth Werner's autobiographical Sonja's Rapport as one of the set texts. This was the 1977 official version of her life story as a "spy for peace", although she had fictionalised it in the 1966 novel Ein ungewöhnliches Mädchen. An English edition published in 1991 (trans. Renate Simpson) included information on how she passed on Britain's atomic bomb secrets and her thoughts on looking back at 40 years of the GDR. And that version was put back into German, with an added interview with Werner's three children, and republished in 2006.

The course was small enough, being a rather marginal subject, and we had all got hold of the book second-hand, as it was out of print. So it only bordered on mass psychosis when we all discovered that our antiquarian "treasures" were nothing of the sort. Each one of us had exactly the same "personal" dedication in the front of our book:

Every author has difficulties writing their memoirs: selection, compression and telling the truth were the way I found.
With a clear conscience,
Ruth Werner
14 April 1977

What a swizz! It was a printed dedication! Twelve heartbroken Germanists instantly fell back out of love with daring Ruth Werner and her socialist realist prose.

So you'd think I'd be more careful nowadays, wouldn't you? But no, I went and fell for it all over again this week. My father-in-law has a habit of giving me books I don't particularly want - as if I didn't have enough already. This Monday's offering was Fritz Becker's Cookbook from Berlin, "printed especially for the International University of Presidents" in 1988. Whatever that may be. It looks rather battered and well-loved, with lots of grease spots, which may be a good sign in a cookbook. As I was flicking half-heartedly through it by candlelight (well, OK, it was just dim light on the sofa), I stumbled across occasional little comments in blue ink on the recipes. Things like:

Fresh Blood Sausage and Liverwurst Love it!
Fried Pike with Potato Salad Good for company.
Green Eel with Cucumber Salad and Buttered Potatoes Serve with a dry white wine!
Fried Herring I could eat this everyday

and my favourite:

Berliner Schusterjungen Mikey loves it!

Now apart from the fact that the comments seemed to be next to some of the least appetizing-sounding recipes in the book, I was completely puzzled. Why would someone write this stuff in their own cookbook? Were they really, really absent-minded and likely to forget how much they love fried herring and fresh blood sausage? Were they the equivalent to post-it notes to self that the green eel tasted good with dry white wine last time around? Who the hell was Mikey? And why did the writer think Schusterjungen was a singular?

Gradually, I started to work it out. They had to be comments from the chef himself, Fritz Becker. And he had obviously written them in the book in order to present it to someone really, really important. Someone who attended the International University of Presidents in 1988. Now who was a president in 1988 and spoke English? Well, it could only have been Ronald Reagan! Fritz Becker must have given this very special cookbook to Nancy Reagan, annotated specially for her! And those grease spots were genuine US of A presidential lard! Dripped onto the pages as Nancy prepared Ronny a good old portion of puréed peas or boiled eggs with mustard sauce! (Please excuse my punctuation. I was excited.)

But that still didn't quite explain how my father-in-law had got hold of it. Nor indeed who Mikey was. Achingly slowly, the penny dropped. Those darned printers had caught me out again. A closer inspection the next morning revealed the sordid truth - those idiosyncratic comments were printed into the book to make complete idiots like me think this was some kind of family notebook-style thing, passed down from father to son and containing all the most genuine Ye Olde Berlin recipes. I suspect even the grease spots are fake, as they are on every single page. Mega-doh!

I'm keeping it anyway. Just to show people how delightful Berlin's traditional cuisine is.


Anonymous said...

I was getting all excited about the white-house Griebenschmalz too... what a let down.

Was there a recipe for a Berliner? And if so, was there a comment like "Not to be mistaken for JFK..."?

kjd said...

Hi there Planet!

There is indeed a recipe for "Berlin Jelly Doughnuts". Fritz Becker tells us that "on New Year's Eve especially it is consumed in massive amounts" (sic). Presumably he didn't want to offend Ron & Nancy by mentioning JFK though.

But of course the Berliners don't call them Berliners. They're "Pfannkuchen" (pancakes) here, and anyone who says Berliners is instantly revealed as an alien and sneered at by the lady in the bakery. They probably have a special surcharge for anyone who orders Berliners and Brötchen instead of Pfannkuchen and Schrippen.

Anonymous said...

I have a student doing a project on Ruth Werner and I would really like to get my hands on the 1991 english translation of Sonja's Rapport but I can't find it anywhere - do you know where I can get a copy? I's not on Amazon

kjd said...

Hi Scott,

I've just found it on - the English translation is called "Sonya's Report".

Hope that helps,