We finally got up our courage and invited our German friends Claudia and Justus over for dinner. I’m surprisingly uncomfortable about entertaining here. My housekeeping is notoriously lax, and it’s only deteriorated in Berlin. The housekeeping challenges and even the supplies are just different enough that I’m baffled. When I sweep, full-fledged dust bunnies accumulate behind the door again the very next day. Where can they come from so fast? And if they come back so fast, what’s the point of getting rid of them in first place? Sometimes actual mold grows on the walls. How is that possible? I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s common enough here that mold spray (I think it’s just bleach in a spray bottle) is a standard household cleaning commodity. I blame the complete lack of ventilation in German building practices. But the point is, could we beat back the forces of entropy long enough to host a dinner party?
Step One: Planning
Assuming we could clean the apartment up to German standards, what could we cook that would be interesting and tasty? We decided the safe route would be to produce a typcial American dish. That way, if our guests didn’t like it, they could eat it politely and chalk it up as a cultural experience. And if it didn’t turn out right, only Aaron and I would know. “No, Americans like it that color…”
Our first choice was chili, a frequent menu item in our house. I’ve loved the chili we’ve made here, and I finally figured out it’s because Germans canned kidney beans include sugar. Luckily, before we moved on the chili plan, I asked Claudia if she or Justus had any dietary limitations.
“I don’t like beans,” she said.
“Beans? You mean green beans?”
“Any color of beans. I don’t like them.”
Okay. Scratch the chili. I decided to make cornbread because it’s my favorite food and it’s very New Worldy. And what else goes with cornbread? We finally chose barbecued chicken, a stalwart member of the American food family, but one which I have never prepared. Salad and ice cream sundaes rounded out our menu.
Step Two: Shopping
BBQ chicken and cornbread require many unusual ingredients if you are in Berlin. We would have to make our own bbq sauce, out of ketchup, brown sugar, worcestershire sauce, etc. Ketchup here is usually flavored with curry. No problem. Curry can only enrich the taste of bbq sauce, right? (That turned out to be true.) Brown sugar is not an ingredient the Germans use. We had to buy that at the Asian grocery store. (You also have to shop at the Asian store for the exotic spread called peanut butter.) For the cornbread, I collected baking soda in the cleaning aisle, where it is sold as the chemical compound “Natron.” I had almost given up on baking powder when we found a tiny can of it in the Turkish grocery store, and even then it was single-acting instead of double-acting. I never even wondered what that meant. Aaron’s wikipedia research revealed that we could beef up the amount of baking soda we used to compensate for the weak powder. The cornmeal also came to us from the Turkish market, packaged as polenta mix. Who knew American cuisine was so extraordinary. (Also tragically missing from the German grocery offerings are vanilla and chocolate chips. This puts a damper on Aaron’s specialty, chocolate chip cookies. Instead of vanilla, the Germans cook with vanilla-flavored sugar.)
Step Three: The Party
Don’t worry. Of course it was splendid. Good friends make everything turn out well. We ate and drank and were merry. The Germans suffered momentary confusion when I served the cornbread with dinner. It looked like cake to them. In the end though, Claudia requested that I bring another batch to Justus’ birthday party the following weekend. Despite Claudia’s tastebuds, I also made my Grandma’s baked beans, which contains most of the same ingredients as bbq sauce. I didn’t realize how much I was missing the tastes of home.
We hope to repeat our entertaining experiment soon.