Issue 30

Continental Drift: Lessons learned and unlearned from my time in the Eurozone

Continental Drift: Lessons learned and unlearned from my time in the Eurozone

Every little boy has his first romantic crush. Don’t tell anyone, but mine was with food: mashed potatoes and gravy, to be specific. Mom used to tell the story of when the family was dining at the precursor of Mr. C’s, back in the mid-1960s. Following dinner the waitress came over and asked me what I wanted for dessert, since I was a good little boy and had eaten all of my dinner. “We have chocolate ice cream, and cherry pie,” she offered. “Well,” I reportedly exclaimed, “what I really want is more mashed potatoes.” Mom said the waitress looked stunned. She left, only to return with a small plate of mashed spuds…and the chef. “I want to meet the young lad who loves my mashed potatoes more than pie or ice cream!” the chef exclaimed.

And so it went. I later grew up to love more than potatoes, of course. My next love was blueberry pie: my grandmother’s blueberry pie, to be specific. I still daydream about those pies. Our Irish Catholic family wasn’t big on fancy meals. It was pretty much American comfort food, with spaghetti and meatballs or lasagna thrown in for a little ethnic variety, and cooked by mom, or grandma, at each and every home meal. Many of you can relate to that, I suspect.

By high school at Creighton Prep I had made friends with other kids from all across town. Most shared the same “meat and potatoes” background. However several of my friends came from different backgrounds, and meals over at their homes introduced me to some real culinary variety, including Lebanese, Mexican, Polish and traditional Italian. My taste buds responded as if I had hit the culinary Lotto. College brought more friends from across the country, and they helped introduce me to even more cultural and caloric variety. Omaha, like America, has blossomed with ethnic diversity in recent generations. It is almost to the point where it is getting difficult to find old fashioned “meat and potato” restaurants.

I have long loved to travel; Seeing new sights, meeting new people, and yes, feasting on new and different (to me) foods. College friends moved to New York, D.C., Florida and California.   Visiting them allowed me to sample ethnic foods in Chinatowns, Little Italy, Little Bombay, North Beach, Cuban neighborhoods and a good many other ethnic enclaves. While I always enjoyed seeing my buddies, I traveled as much for the chance to take in new sights, aromas and tastes.

In the 1990s my best friend moved to London, where he would live for 12 years. London was my first trip “across the pond.” While it was a huge bonus to have a “local” show me some of the sights, his work schedule left me as a solo traveler much of the time. Not to fear, as I had already discovered that I traveled best when using the “trial and error” method. By stumbling upon pubs and little ethnic restaurants quite by happenstance I ended up having some of my favorite dining experiences (Then there was the Pakistani restaurant that served Lipton Cup o’ Soup as their soup de jour – you can’t win them all).

Earlier this year I had an opportunity to spend eleven days in Europe. A good part of my time was spent attending a conference. That was fine, as my work helped pay my way, and allowed me to extend my time by tacking on an extra week or so in Paris. I traveled with my husband, who has been to culinary school and owned a restaurant “in a previous life.”

Our travels took us to western Germany and then to Paris. Most US travelers to Germany fly into Frankfurt, and so it was with us. The city resembles a larger American city probably more so than any other European burgh, as it was largely rebuilt following WWII. Construction cranes and American style skyscrapers dot the sky. I found that to be equal parts reassuring and off-putting. Oh, and if you have never spent time in Frankfurt, everybody and their dachshund speaks English.

This was my first visit to the German interior. Our first impressions were how forested and green it was, even in late winter. Our second impression came from our taxi driver, who appeared vaguely Middle Eastern. He set off for the city center and soon had the late model Mercedes taxi up to 180 km/h (111 mph). The ten minute ride truly was quite a rush! The Germans really do love their cars, and there must be something in the German federal constitution that guarantees the right to drive at near the speed of sound, even in urban areas.

It didn’t take long for us to agree on the next big impression concerning our surroundings. Everyone is thin. Pencil thin even. Well, except for the American tourists.

Could this be Germany? The land of sauerbraten?   And Wiener schnitzel? Of beer steins the size of cowboy boots? To heck with the French paradox. What the heck is going on here?

We were soon determined to find out. We set out from our hotel (the über traditional German Holiday Inn Express), walking around downtown Frankfurt, past park, museum, opera house and skyscraper after skyscraper. We must have walked two miles before we decided we were hungry enough to look for a place to eat a proper Sunday lunch.

Nothing was open. Nada bookstore or a department store. Not the Apple store! Not even a Starbucks! A few sidewalk cafes seemed open, but they were sparsely populated, even on a mild late winter day. It seems German “blue” laws endure into the 21st Century.

So we walked the half mile or so down to the Main River, which bisects the city, much as the Seine crosses Paris. And there we found a lovely “modern German” restaurant, Main Nizza (http://mainnizza.de/), doing a bustling business.

We were introduced to the owner, a gregarious British fellow, who welcomed us to Germany, to Frankfurt, and to his restaurant. We were seated at a banquet with a glorious view out the wall of windows overlooking the Main River.   This restaurant reminded me of what Rick’s Boatyard could have been if they had only tried. The food was essentially a fancy version of German comfort food. We really liked it, including the apfelwein. We also noted that the only amply proportioned people we saw in all of Germany were seated around us in Nizza. More than a few were Brits and Americans, as it turned out.

That night we walked the neighborhood around our hotel, trying to decide where to have dinner. Fortunately, most of the restaurants were of the ‘mom and pop’ variety, either pizzerias, Japanese or Turkish. We opted for the latter. I confess to have never eaten at a Turkish restaurant before, and though I am certain there are differences with Greek cuisine, I will only say that if you enjoy Greek food, you will enjoy Turkish just as much.  The similarities dwarf the differences.

The bulk of our time in Germany was spent in the charming little university city of Heidelberg, located on the edge of the Black Forest. The University of Heidelberg hosted the conference I attended. The city seemed designed for walking, and we did a lot of it (we ended up wearing out 3 pairs of shoes during our time in Europe). Like Frankfurt, we found the restaurants to be predominantly family-owned. Being a university town, Heidelberg is full of culinary options. Surprising to us was the number of excellent Italian restaurants. There was even an American style Jazz and BBQ restaurant. Well, that’s what it claimed to be, anyway.

In five days in Heidelberg we walked virtually everywhere we went, along the famed Hauptstrasse (main pedestrian street), up the hillside to the ancient Heidelberg Castle, and along the Neckar River. We dined several times on classic German cuisine, including a lunch at the historic Hotel Ritter in the Old City (www.ritter-heidelberg.de/en/). The hotel and restaurant date back to 1592. Yes, that is not a typo. I can now cross “eating at a 400 year old restaurant” off my bucket list. We were delighted, not only by the food (deer was included on the menu), but by the fact that a few older gentlemen seated at the next table wore suspenders and had beer bellies.   At long last!

Truth be told, while we enjoyed every restaurant meal in Heidelberg, our favorite meals in the city were actually found at Italian and Middle Eastern restaurants.

Following our time in Heidelberg we were off on the High Speed German Bahn railway into Paris. Less than four hours from Heidelberg Centrale to Paris Est, with only one change of train, and a semi fast food lunch at the rail station in Manheim. Even our complimentary meal served in 2nd class on the train was better than what you would find flying first class on most airlines.

We arrived in Paris late Friday afternoon, to the sound of honking horns and a thousand motorbikes. Despite the romantic portrayals of Parisian life found in scores of movies and travelogues, Parisians live a fast life typical of most large urban cities. They just do it with a bit more panache than can be found in London or New York.

High speed or not, Paris is the height of romance and beauty. If you have been there you already know that. If not, for goodness sakes, what are you waiting for? You’re not getting any younger, don’t you know?

Paris is great for walking – just be sure to bring your umbrella. I always wondered what it would be like to stroll in the rain or snow along the Seine, or through the Latin Quarter or the Montparnasse neighborhoods. Well, we got to find out. Paris had its heaviest snow in many years while we were visiting. Apparently the city budget for snow removal is close to €0. I’m not sure how you say “let it melt” en francais, but that must be the city street department’s official motto.

Anyway, snow and rain be damned. We transversed many miles on foot, both in sun and snow, and loved almost every minute of it. The wonderful thing about Paris is that behind the next curve on just about every narrow side street will be a quaint little café or bakery, or both. The movies really do get that part right. Which leads me to my impression of the French: how do they stay so darn thin, eating all those éclairs, macaroons, fancy chocolates and all that cheese?   Come to think of it, their wine isn’t calorie free, either.

Scientists and dieticians have studied the European diet for decades. I have a word or two of advice for all of them. If you live in a land where you wear shoes out every few months, and where you avoid consuming virtually all fried foods or “fast food”, you can eat whatever else your heart desires, and not gain weight. Portion control plays a part in this as well. There are no “super-sized” meals to be had, and while our restaurant meals were universally filling, by the time we were full there was nothing left to take home.

I have been back at home for a few months now since my European adventure. You may be wondering whether I have since adapted my diet to take into account the lessons learned in my travels. Unfortunately not. Maybe I will just blame it on our lousy weather!

Bill MacKenzie

Bill MacKenzie

Bill MacKenzie is better known to many in Omaha BBQ circles as "BBQ Bill." For the past 15 years he has been a member of the Greater Omaha Barbeque Society (GOBS), including serving a recent stint as president. BBQ has been one of Bill's food passions since his college days in the 1980s. As a certified BBQ Judge under rules of the Kansas City BBQ Society, Bill has judged sanctioned barbeque contests in 5 states.


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