Tuesday, December 4, 2012


"I was born in Berlin in 1977, back when it was still known as West Berlin"--so writes
author Luisa Weiss in her memoir, My Berlin Kitchen.   That Berlin bore
"the pockmarks from mortar fire in the façades of many buildings and the air
smelled of coal smoke."

Three years after young Luisa was born, she and her father returned to Boston.  For years, she
traveled intermittently--spending “summers  in Italy with my mother’s family,” and winters
in Boston.  At age ten, she moved back to Berlin to live with her mother, attended high
school, then returned to Boston for college, then went onto Paris for graduate school.

It is an eclectic, international, peripatetic  life.  "So I looked for home in [my] kitchen."

As a child, Luisa spoke Italian with her mother, English with her father and the nanny--
while speaking German to the outside world.  As an adult, she speaks four languages
and seems remarkably well-adapted, flexible, and self-aware.

 "As I grew up," she writes, "moving around from Berlin to Boston to Paris to New York,
I discovered that cooking was the reliable way to feel less alone."

"...By summoning the flavors of Berlin and the foods of my loved ones, my kitchen became
my sanctuary, the stove my anchor."

Major themes of Weiss' life and character are flux--movement from city to city,
constantly adapting--and a "perpetual  homesickness."  The author acclimates herself
in each new city through food.  "And just like in Paris," she writes, "whenever I needed
some quiet time alone, I'd head to the grocery store."

From the recipes at the end of each chapter, one sees that Weiss often favors rustic
food with peasant origins.  Her favorite dish as a child was a potato vegetable soup—
"Braised Artichokes and Potatoes"--from Italy that her grandmother used to make.  Then 
there's “Depression Stew,” her father's concoction.  

Two kinds of pizza--Sicilian and Neapolitan--are featured, as well as recipes for "Tomato 
Bread Soup," "German Pea Soup," "Potato Salad" (which they seem to eat quite often in 
Germany).  Also, "Flammkuchen” or flatbread, "Apple Tart," "Quark Cheesecake," 
and "White Asparagus Salad."

My Berlin Kitchen introduces us to German cuisine.  Snacks, foods, lore, customs.
How Berliners celebrate Christmas--with lots of Christmas cookies, fruit bread, goose, and
plum cake.  Their surprising friendliness and reverence for neighbors.  How Berliners 
gorge at breakfast time.

German cuisine?  Previously, my knowledge of German cuisine was that I'd eaten
sauerkraut and hot dogs as a kid, I'd heard of wiener schnitzel  and have a faint childhood
memory of biting into liverwurst and not liking it.  So this is foreign territory for me. 
But as I read My Berlin Kitchen, I found myself thinking of trying out some of the yummy 
recipes (despite the fact that cooking is not my forté).

Moreover, I had the sense that the foods and recipes and love story comprised a modern-day
German fairy tale--in which Berlin is a romantic city, filled with Quark and Flammkuchen.

 To  Weiss, Berlin is "the linden-scented city."

She writes, "When the days start to lengthen and the trees bloom and the air fills
with the scent of linden blossoms, warming earth, and budding leaves, it
comes as such a relief, such a much-deserved reward for having survived another
bone-cold winter, that one could almost believe that Berlin was an equatorial paradise."

A beautiful portrait of the author's life emerges alongside the formerly beleaguered Berlin—
"with its overcast winter skies and inescapable history often gets the short end of the stick
when it comes to capturing the imagination of food lovers and romantics."  

To the skeptics, Weiss answers:  Berlin is romantic and a food lover's delight.  

After all, she found  two loves: Sam (who believed  true love was "a fantasy") and Max 
(whom she met in high school in Berlin, fell in love with in Paris, and wed in Italy).   
Ultimately, Weiss found  happiness, fulfillment, friends and true love in Berlin--
by following her self-declared  motto, "Be brave."

At one point,  chameleon-like Weiss discusses breakfasts as they differ in each country.
"Italians eat dry little cookies [krumiri] for breakfast," she writes.  In Boston, she eats
Raisin Bran "bathed in cold milk" or "hot cream of wheat for breakfast."  In Berlin—
where a  smorgasbord of ham, Quark, liverwurst, cheese is the norm--she eats German
"sourdough bread" shaped like "a dozen Princess Leia buns fused together in a pan."

My Berlin Kitchen  is beautifully written, poetic as well as introspective.  As readers,
we become privy to Weiss' feelings and thoughts as she decides, for example, to leave one
wannabe-fiancé (Sam) because she was unhappy.  And, of course, there is the food--
at once sumptuous and exotic and rustic.

In  summation, "When you grow up all mishmashed like I did, with an American passport 
and Italian citizenship and a birth certificate issued in West Berlin it might take a little longer 
than usual to figure out your place in the world.  You're this strange little hybrid of a person, 
easily adaptable, fluent in many languages, an outsider everywhere."

My Berlin Kitchen would go on my list of  Best Books of 2012.

---Yolanda A.  Reid

Check out Luisa Weiss' blog at www.thewednesdaychef.com and her photostream of
the many cities in My Berlin Kitchen at www.flickr.com/photos/74932844@N00/.

1 comment:

  1. You should add a feature on your sidebar so people can follow your blog. :)