Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What has happened to German culture in America?

I must first apologize for the following rant, bear with me...

As I flipped through channels on my TV tonight, I came across a show on The Cooking Channel regarding Italian Christmas traditions across America: An Italian Christmas with Mario and Giada, featuring chefs Mario Batali and Giada De Laurentiis. I enjoy shows about cultural heritage and even though I have no Italian roots, this show gave me some insights to my husband's Italian family. I couldn't help but wonder when the German version of such a show would air. But then reality struck and I realized it wouldn't happen. There are no German cooking shows. There are no German heritage shows.

I consider myself an American...my family has been here too long to actually claim any one heritage. But when it all comes down to it my maiden name is German and that, along with Irish, is the heritage I claim. That being said, I insist on cooking German foods and we always celebrate Oktoberfest in our own way. In the 1860s, an estimated 1.3 million native born Germans lived in the United States and there were more than 200 German language publications across the country. In the 1880s, the largest period of German immigration, nearly 1.5 million Germans immigrated to America. In 1894 German language publications reached 800 in number. By the turn of the 20th century, however, the German culture began to fade bit by bit. German-language publications started to decline.* Of course World War I and World War II served to only further the decline of German culture in America.
A map of distribution of German ancestry based on data from the 1890 census. Published 1898 in Statistical Atlas of the United States.
Across the United States some 43 million people claim at least some German heritage. But where is that shown today? Of course we have the beer: Budweiser, Miller, Pabst. There is Heinz ketchup, Mercedes Benz, even Volkswagen (of which we own two!) And some towns still honor their German roots such as Milwaukee, St. Louis and Cincinnati. The Milwaukee Brewers even held a German Heritage Day this past August. Despite these things, I can't help but wonder where the German restaurants are, the German bakeries, German cookbooks, German bier halls? Where is German culture in America? German culture is about more than beer and sauerkraut...but how would an average American know that?

After living in Germany for three years I am especially sensitive to missing German culture. You see, I tasted the honey and now I want more. Our family has driven hours just to attend various Oktoberfests across America, only to be disappointed. Special note to Oktoberfest planners: deep-fried oreos and Italian sausage are NOT German. Would it kill you to make some schnitzel or bratwurst? In all honesty, it is not the fault of the planners or organizers, there just aren't vendors to support such a festival. I also suppose that any recognition of the German culture, however inaccurate, is better than no recognition at all.

One of our favorite aspects of Germany was the holiday season. We loved the Christmas markets, outdoor markets with vendor and craft booths, food and my favorite: Gluhwein, or warm spiced wine. Fantastic fun! How many crepes mit Nutella have I eaten, I ask you? Americans would eat this concept up. Walk through an outdoor market, with a chill in the air, finding unique Christmas presents in one spot...and have wine, hot chocolate or beer? It is a no brainer. Chicago has a very nice Christmas market that is just like a real German market. It is a must visit. A quick Google search finds similar Christmas markets across the country.
A Christmas Market in Koln, Germany
Alas, I don't think there is an easy answer. But I do know that it is up to passionate German-Americans to maintain and continue that culture. So I'll continue to make schnitzel and to polish up my German and hopefully, one day, my dream of owning a traveling schnitzel cart will be realized. Until then...tschuss!

Here are some links I found about German-American culture:

- German Originality
- Goethe Institut, U.S. page
- German-American Heritage Foundation of the USA
- German-American Heritage Museum
- A list of German Clubs across America

*Information taken from Chronology: The Germans in America, European Reading Room, The Library of Congress.

7 comments:

Brenda Leyndyke said...

I love visiting Christkindlmart in Chicago. Michigan is home to Frankenmuth, Mi, a lovely German Heritage city. I agree, the German Heritage doesn't seem to be popular with cooking shows.

Kathy, the Single-minded Offshoot said...

Good rant! I guess I'm fortunate to live 15 miles west of Milwaukee because we have quite a bit of German culture remaining - but a couple of very good German restaurants are no more and I hate, as a full-blooded German (both sides of family) to see them replaced by yet another Italian or Mexican eatery (though I do love that kind of food too). We can't let our traditions, cooking etc. disappear. When do we start the crusade?

Lori said...

I absolutely agree with you. It seems that our heritage is slipping away more and more each year. I do believe that the World Wars had quite a bit to do with the decline of the popularity of many things German. But, it's high time we start reversing that trend! I'm with you!

Kerry Scott said...

I live in a northern suburb of Milwaukee, and as Kathy points out, we still have quite a bit of German stuff here. In general, though, I think the wars combined with the fact that most German immigrants came so long ago are a big part of it. My Germans came in the 1840s and 1850s, whereas my Italian friends' immigrants all came in the early 1900s. I think cultural traditions tend to peter out when you hit the 150 year mark.

If you want to feel German, though...come to Milwaukee. We'll hook you up.

Heather Kuhn Roelker said...

I would agree except for there were never German restaurants on every corner. Where are the German Olive Gardens? Where are the German fast food restaurants? Perhaps I've come up with a new idea...

Brigitte Heitland said...

Maybe Heather it's about that Germans don't have so much Restaurant franchisings here either. That's not because we can't cook, it seems more that we haven't just developed the commercial potential so far. So what can Germans give to the world or give to USA. What we surely have to give are our high standards of quality and reliability, our depth of some arts like architecture, literature or music. We can share so many things where American and German people can learn from each other. What I've learned from the American is your relaxed way of mulicultural tolerance and acceptance, which I can't estimate high enough.

Heather Kuhn Roelker said...

Brigitte-
That is such a good point and one I hadn't thought of. Most of the chains that I remember seeing in Germany were American! (We lived in Germany for three years). My favorite restaurants were always the ones in the small towns. They would recognize you and the food was different from chain restaurants. Germans have made a massive impact in America as far as our culture. I suppose I just wish I had that little German restaurant down the street! And I suppose I also wished I still lived there!