Vol. III, No. 3, Winter 1990


German Food

Customs and Traditions in the Missouri Ozarks

by Erin McCawley Renn



It would be a mistake to think Missouri's Germans consumed only sauerkraut, sausage, and beer, even though that became a wide y accepted popular stereotype of the group Anglo-Americans persistently and incorrectly called "Dutchmen." Though Germans certainly did eat and drink things not commonly accepted by Yankees as legitimate food, and smoked pipes when others were chewing tobacco or using cigars, this stereotype has the fault of all stereotypes: it conceals the diversity of German foodways and wide ranging contributions made by German gardeners and cooks to the American diet.

Unlike many of their Anglo-American neighbors, the Germans wanted salads, vegetables, and fruits on their tables every day. One authority has even credited Germans with introducing kitchen gardening to the United States. The English author Anthony Trollope, travelling in Maryland in 1848, noted that many farmers there had no gardens; they lived on pork, salt, fish, and corn bread. E. W. Howe, writing in 1929, quoted a Missourian who told him of growing up on meat, gravy, bread, potatoes, milk, butter, and pie, varying this with green corn, watermelons, wild blackberries, and plums in season. "Gardens were not common in my youth," he told Howe, and said his family did not eat salads.

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The Germans, however, were accustomed to a varied diet based on a well-stocked kitchen garden and orchard, as surviving letters, journals, and daybooks attest. An 1833 seeds list drawn up by a young German peasant woman named Liwwat Boeke carefully sets out the vegetables, soft fruits, and fruit tree varieties she brought with her. Later she even added a plan of the garden and orchard she and her husband created in their new home. She had an active sense of history which she recorded in pictures and words, writing descriptions of how she prepared and stored foodstuffs for their own use and for sale to a ready Anglo market. At one point in her narrative she commented,

Just as hay, wheat, corn, oats, rye, etc., are important to our lifestyle and betterment, just so is the growing of vegetables, fruit trees and berries, both the wild and our own plantings. Fruit and berries help our diet balance our health and condition.

She had brought with her in cloth seed bags and paper packets a great variety of seeds: three kinds of green peas, four kinds of beans, three of carrots, three of onions, three of cabbages, two of beets, plus parsnips, cucumbers, gherkins, spinach, rhubarb, kohlrabi, leeks, and four kinds of turnips, two of which were for animal feed (the way Germans fed their livestock was just one of several differences leading to the prosperity of German farms). She also had gooseberry, blackberry, raspberry, and strawberry seeds, and for her planned orchard apple, cherry, peach, pear, quince, apricot, and plum seeds. Some twenty years later she wrote, "We have 22 apple trees; 10 cherry; 12 peach; 5 quince; 9 plum; 16 pear; 6 apricot; 16 crab-apple. We started by planting from seeds that I brought with me from home."

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In 1844 a middle-class intellectual thought along lines similar to those pursued by Liwwat Boeke and other peasants. Anton Lensing wrote to advise a friend about to come to Missouri, "Seed collections are useful and easy to bring along, but grafting slips would be impractical .... "Later, of course, when ocean travel became faster and orchards better established, grafting scions would be an easier way to diversity fruit tree collections. Yet, by skill and determination Liwwat Boeke and others succeeded in the difficult task of raising fruit trees and bushes from seed.

A market for differing plant varieties led to the establishment of a number of thriving nurseries, among them the northern Ozarks mail order business operated by German immigrant George Husmann of Hermann. Husmann, later a nationally noted authority on orchards and wine grapes who served as Professor of Agriculture at the University of Missouri-Columbia, began to develop his business in the 1850s. By 1857 his descriptive catalog listed 115 varieties of apples, 80 of pears, 53 of peaches, and 40 of cherries. These, in addition to plums, quinces, apricots, nectarines, and seven different types of nut trees were all growing at his Hermann nursery and adapted to Missouri's climate. This is a testimony to the German desire for diversity and extending the production season, as well as their willingness to adapt and experiment.

Germans liked to plant their home orchards, soft fruits, and kitchen gardens next to each other, erecting picket fences around them to keep out livestock, especially pigs and poultry, just as had been done back home. Vegetables were grown in raised beds about three feet wide, separated by stone flagged, gravel, or sawdust and woodchip paths. At a time when it was usual for Anglo-Americans to grow only corn or tobacco until their fields were exhausted (to their German neighbors' great scorn) Germans placed great emphasis on soil fertility. They planted clover for nitrogen, spread manure on their fields, and added lime to offset acidity. They practiced careful crop rotation, and all their knowledge of soil improvement benefitted their gardens as well as their fields. Numbers of old German farming adages survive, such as one collected by Dr. Walter Kamphoefner: "Prayer and manure will not be in vain; manure will help for sure." Liwwat Boeke observed, "People in Europe eat potatoes more than any other root crop; here too] They grow best in sandy, drained and loamy soil, and using manure we get 280 bushels to the acre."

Food storage cellars were a necessity, and were among the first structures a family built. The storage area might be a cave adapted with a wall and doors to close it off, a stone or brick cellar under the house or barn (there were excellent stone and brick masons in German communities), or a separate earth-topped root cellar apart from but near the house. It had to be underground, dry, and well ventilated and insulated. Carrots, cabbages, apples, onions, potatoes, beets, turnips, parsnips, kohlrabi, pears, and suchlike were stored layered between straw. Cheeses were made and cured there, as well as -- oh yes -- sauerkraut and pickles. The rule of thumb was 100 heads of cabbage per person. Although cabbage was preserved both ways, sauerkraut is far more space-efficient than head cabbage. Sauerkraut and pickles are an excellent source of Vitamin C, and even though vitamin theory had yet to be developed, Germans were well aware of the healthy attributes of both. Immigrants often made their own vinegar using apple juice, just one more reason to develop an orchard.

So great was the need for suitable storage containers that potteries and cooperages were among the very first businesses established by any German community. And so adept were the Germans at raising vegetables while their Anglo-American neighbors raised none that a ready market always existed for any surplus. Some immigrants near large cities became successful full-time market gardeners, caring for as much as thirty acres with hand tools alone. Others were able to buy farms which Anglo-Americans had first settled and then exhausted, and make those farms productive and thrifty.

Not only farmers believed in orchards and kitchen gardens. Even today in Germany the small plots of land around houses are viewed as sources of home-grown fruit and vegetables. This was even more noticeable in the 19th Century at all levels of German society. Eduard Muehl's comments to a fellow editor in 1844 were typical:

Here in Hermann things are going well. I live in a very small and convenient house. In the rear is a garden with fruit trees and vegetables. I can have plenty of ham and greens, bread and sweet butter ....

The "greens" Muehl mentioned could number as many as 22 types in one garden along, with 56 varieties among them, ranging from celeriac and eggplant through tomatoes, cress, seven kinds of green peas, six kinds of radishes, that German favorite asparagus, melons, sweet potatoes, and even sugar beets. The only limitations seem to have been time, space, and manpower. Add to this an equal love of flowers, planted to please the eye, and a range of herbs, planted for cooking, medicinal, and dye purposes, and the possibilities are still not exhausted. For Germans also valued certain weeds and permitted them to flourish wherever they chose along fences, in corners, around barns and manure heaps, and near watering troughs. Many weeds have medicinal, dye, or food value, and Germans had been accustomed to letting Nature help them however possible; it was easy to transfer this attitude of making use of all God's bounty to the New World.

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In line with taking advantage of weeds and whatever native fruits were available, Germans also quickly learned about wild bees and how to follow them (throw white flour on them as they fly by, to make them more visible in the woods). Other ways of augmenting the diet included hunting, a skill German peasants learned from their Anglo neighbors; in Germany only the upper classes had been permitted to own guns and to hunt. One immigrant, Kate Holder Rebsamen, hunted squirrels in Gasconade County as a girl. She and her brother brought in as many as they could carry, and the squirrels were salted down in barrels for winter food. Her family also salted down some kinds of fish the same way. It must have made a welcome change from cured pork and sausage.

November, the hunting month, was also the time for hog butchering. Once the weather got cold enough hogs were slaughtered on farms all across Missouri. Hams and bacon were cured and smoked everywhere, but on German farms other meat products were also prepared: scrapple, souse, and many many varieties of sausage. Missouri Anglo-Americans seem to have had one or two fresh sausage recipes; Missouri Germans had many, from Leberwurst through Schwartenmagen, Mettwurst, Knockwurst, Bratwurst, and Weisswurst to the hard-cured Sommerwurst, so called because it will last for months. In English we say, "You made your own bed, now lie in it." Germans say, "Die Wurst nach dem Manne braten" -- every man fries his own sausage. Sausage really was a major part of life for Germans; in Germany it still is. Any serious German sausage shop in the Old Country will carry fifty to sixty types at one time; as some sausages are seasonal the shop may handle over 100 kinds during the course of a year. Some are sold raw and fresh, some smoked, some pickled in brine, some are cooked, and some go through a combination of steps. Of all the European countries, Germany has the greatest variety of sausages, and these methods and traditions came to Missouri. Descendants of our 19th Century settlers still make a wide range of sausages. Hermann's Wurstfest each March is just one way of getting to know this delicious cultural transplant; another is to seek out the small butcher shops and smokehouses to be found in German-settled communities throughout the Ozarks.
A reconstructed kitchen garden from apporoxi-mately 1840. Germans usually mixed their plantings, with vegetables, herbs, and decorative plants put in wherever there was space. The paths of this garden are topped with gravel, though flagstones or sawdust were also used. In the foreground are bush beans, lettuces, the remains of a carrot patch, tomatoes, Hamburg parsley (grown for its roots), and a sunflower. Small gardens like this were for everyday use; major plantings of cabbages and potatoes for winter storage were made elsewhere. These planting methods were used in Missouri during much of the 19th century.

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Today we eat tar more meat than was the norm in many 19th Century German households. A favorite and very German way of extending the year's sausage production (or any other meat) was soup. Anglo-Americans seldom ate soup and looked on this custom with suspicion. Germans, on the other hand, typically had one soup meal a day. Soup was a centuries-old response to the problem of preparing a meal while all the able-bodied family members were in the fields working; soup could be started in the morning and simmer quietly unattended all day, thus freeing women to work beside men anywhere on the farm, as had been the custom in Europe. German women did heavy work as a matter of course at a time when this custom was increasingly frowned on by Yankees; it was just one more difference between the two groups.

Another favorite food of Germans, often combined with sausage, pickles, and soup, was whole-grain rye bread. Like sausages, rye bread comes in a wide array (there are over fifty kinds), and needs a brick oven to fully develop all the flavor. Just as with potteries, bakeries were essential to German notions of comfort and were among the earliest businesses established in any German community. The round or oval loaves baked in these brick ovens typically weighed four or more pounds, and the usual allowance was one pound per person per day; more if doing hard physical labor. For those outside town the bread was usually purchased once a week, and as additives to increase shelf life still lay in the future, the bread became very tough and chewy as it aged. A common supper late in the week would consist of thickly sliced bread, perhaps browned in bacon grease or lard, and placed in a broad soup plate. It would then be covered with hot beef broth. Bread soup was a normal meal in rural Missouri well into the 1940s. When made with whole-grain bread and a good broth, it was nourishing and satisfying, but Anglo-Americans, not raised in a soup tradition, often made slighting comments on such meals. Sausages, salads, and soups were just three of the important foodways which made German Americans different.

What Germans drank also made them different. In the early settlement period, before the Civil War, coffee was not yet widely drunk by Anglo-Americans, and cultured Germans missed it. In 1836 Julius Gustorf was happily eloquent about the Baroness von Bock's "strong coffee that was served in beautiful cups," and at a later meal was moved to comment in his journal about the coffee and "real German cream puffs" he had had. From a German perspective things had not improved by 1847, when Franz von Loher remarked on the pleasure of "taking one's ease...with good coffee, the likes of which are not at all common in America...."

The majority of Germans, however, were refreshing themselves not with coffee but with beer, and, after the vineyards were developed, wine. During the time when few Anglo-Americans drank anything but ardent spirits --mostly rum, gin, brandy, and corn liquor --Germans missed the beer that they had enjoyed at home, and with it the beer halls and beer gardens. By 1840 some forty breweries operated in St. Louis alone, and German communities elsewhere also had breweries. By 1850 Hermann, population under 700, had two, but unlike the huge beer factories of today these had limited production. As late as 1877 the largest brewery in Hermann was producing only 454 barrels per year.

Beer drinking set German Americans apart; the beer halls and beer gardens in which they gathered in large family groups to listen to German music, speak German, eat German food, and sing German songs also set them apart. What undoubtedly added to the alienation felt by many Yankees was the Germans' attitude toward Sunday as a day for business like any other (in German communities businesses typically stayed open until noon on Sunday), or a day for pleasure. As William Bek put it in 1907, "They held that Sunday was made for them, and not they for Sunday." Sunday was the day when St. Louis Germans hopped the excursion trains out to Washington or Hermann to enjoy the beer (and wine) gardens. For Anglo-Americans, beer became the symbol of all they disliked about the German immigrants with their different eating habits, their funny way of talking, and their too-successful ways of business and farming. During the Civil War scurrilous songs about allegedly cowardly German troops always included numerous references to lager beer, as did later stage comic sketches poking unkind fun at Germans. Franz von Loher noted in 1847 that "Yankeedom has not yet been able to go so far as to ban music on Sunday evenings," but after the Civil War various "blue laws" were passed by the Missouri Legislature. For some years heavily German American communities ignored these laws, but on June 7, 1905, Governor Folk announced that Sunday closings of all types would be enforced. That put an end to the Sunday train excursions and to the pleasant afternoons and evenings in the beer halls and gardens. Such places had always been primarily for socializing and were family gathering places (as they still are in Germany), not hangouts for drunks and sots, but this was not a distinction recognized by the Legislature. Besides, it could hardly exclude beer gardens while closing bars, although bars in Missouri were not, by and large, family-oriented.

Within little more than a decade Sunday closings became a moot point as far as beer gardens went. Prohibition (1920-1933) put a legal end to everything alcoholic.

Today, wines are again being produced in Missouri, quite a few of them by Missouri Germans in the northern Ozarks; perhaps some enterprising soul will one day lead a renaissance of the small breweries as well.

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There are certain German foodways which are seasonal in a manner not yet mentioned: traditional festival foods, once served only at a specific time each year. Of these, Christmas is the most outstanding as more recipes for special baked goods and dishes remain from this celebration than for any other. Among the many survivors are the marzipan (almond candy) molds used by a Hermann baker and confectioner, which suggests the past importance in America of a delicacy still seen as essential to the Christmas season in Germany. Any locally-produced cookbook will have recipes for that centuries-old honey spice cake known as Lebkuchen in High German or Lepp cookies in Low. Stollen is another frequently-prepared old, old recipe dating back at least to the 1600s. Many families have preserved their own recipes for Hutlesbrot or Schnitzbrot; these, like Stollen, are sweet breads which contain cut-up dried or candied fruits. Any good German-American recipe collection will include anise cookies and cinnamon stars, Zimtsterne, also long-time German Christmas favorites. Baking for a German Christmas takes weeks of special preparation.

All of these and more were and are important to a German American Christmas. But there is another type of traditional food, once eaten on Christmas Eve in many parts of Germany and Missouri: Weihnachtssalat, Christmas Salad. Just as in the Deep South it is traditional to eat black-eyed peas and hog jowl for good luck and future prosperity on New Years Day, so German Americans ate a herring and meat salad composed of diced herring, chicken or veal or beef, apples, beets, eggs, pickles, onion, nuts, and spices. Folk wisdom said, "If you eat this dish on Christmas Eve you will never be in want."

Christmas is not the only time of year with special food customs. A Lenten tradition whose memory is much treasured by older Missourians was that of giving children a special donut called Fettkuchle on Shrove Tuesday; children went from door to door begging for these.

Easter was marked with decorated blown eggs and lamb cakes made in special cast-iron molds used only once a year. Ham was the traditional main course, and Stollen was served with coffee. (Any reader who has ever gone to the labor of making a traditional Stollen will know why it is served only twice a year).

May 1st, Maitag, was made special with picnics, school outings, maypoles, and Maiwein or Maibowle, a punch made with white wine and the herb sweet woodruff. There was a time when German gardens all across Missouri harbored plantings of woodruff, but this custom is now almost gone.

In some rural areas the third Sunday in October was celebrated as a church consecration day and harvest festival, rather like Thanksgiving, known as Kirchweih, at which much food was served, and November 10, St. Martin's Eve, was eagerly awaited by children especially for its torch and lantern-lit parades, its singing and noisemaking, and for its big bonfire at the end of the evening. On St. Martin's Day itself children again roamed the town, knocking at doors, and were given cookies, candy, and apples, much like today's Halloween. The main meal of the day was traditionally roast goose stuffed with prunes and apples, and served with dumplings and sauerkraut. One suspects that the children may have loved the roast goose, but loved even more the parades, the lanterns, bonfires, and singing, and above all the sweet handouts.

Although the larger American community may have rejected a number of German ethnic practices, there is no question that German food traditions have made a significant and lasting contribution to the entire nation, and have been thoroughly adopted and incorporated. Perhaps Fettkuchle are no longer tossed to children on Shrove Tuesday, but Christmas celebrations, the wide acceptance of beer and coffee as being an important part of life, and the presence of vegetables, salads and fruit on the table at least once a day, argue that Germans have had a major influence on the very Anglo-Americans who once disapproved of them.

Erin McCawley Renn is the administrator of Deutschheim State Historic Site in Hermann, the state park system's German heritage museum. Deutschheim is a property of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, Division of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. Dr. Renn would be pleased to hear from anyone with further information on the subject of German food traditions. The address is 109 W. 2nd St., Hermann MO 65041. Her phone is 314/486-2200.

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