Of Filthy Fat and German Manners

In the small Thuringian forest village of Möhra, where Hans Luther (the father of Martin Luther) was born in a modest house on a narrow side street, Victorian journalist Henry Mayhew took a room in a hotel whose only virtue was a larder full of black pudding. The austere amenities Mayhew enjoyed there apparently planted the the seeds of what would eventually grow into a deep and abiding hatred of the German people, which he distilled into the two-volume German Life and Manners as Seen in Saxony at the Present Day: With an Account of Village Life-Town Life-Fashionable Life-Domestic Life-Married Life-School and University Life, &c., of Germany at the Present Time (1864).

Mayhew railed against almost everything about German life and manners. He found the faces and breath of the German baronesses dirty and stale, the carriages and state equipages inexcusably muddied, the language coarse and the homes slovenly. Even household pets elicited Mayhew’s disgust: “Never was such a race of domestic animals to be seen on the face of the earth,” he writes, “cats with back-bones not unlike a miniature ridge of the Alps, and dogs as thin and long-legged as French pigs, and as underbred as those in the streets of Constantinople.” For Mayhew, “filthy, barbarous Deutschland” was a commonwealth of noxious burghers and ailing animals.

German food was a source of constant vexation as well for this excitable journalist. He abhorred the German love of sour bread and root vegetables, and German meat he found nauseating, especially a “filthy fat called ‘speck.” He loathed how this “hump of black, baked pig-meat, stripped of every particle of fat, is not a very tempting-looking, nor even a very toothsome dish, to persons of the least refinement.”

German Life and Manners was a flop; readers and critics generously speculated Mayhew took leave of his senses while roving the German countryside. Nothing else could explain such an odd and irascible book from an otherwise circumspect writer. But for all its faults, it does remind us, albeit in a roundabout way, of Germany’s more charming culinary traditions, like this recipe for speck and potatoes from Die Küche im Deutschen Bürgerhause: Ausführlichste Anleitung für Anfänger in Kochen, Backen und Einmachen (1901), a dish that surely would have sent Henry Mayhew into paroxysms of revulsion.

Speck Potatoes

12-15 medium potatoes
10 grams salt
1 liter meat stock, or hot salt water
30 grams butter
20 grams smoked pork speck (bacon), finely chopped
2 small onions, finely chopped
1 bunch parsley

Wash the potatoes, peel them, cut them into thick pieces and put them into water. Put the butter in a large dutch oven, heat it over medium heat and, once the butter melts, throw in the chopped onions with the finely chopped speck, and roast until light brown. Drain the potatoes in a colander and put them immediately into the hot fat with the bacon and onions. Add the salt. Mix everything together and allow to cook for fifteen minutes. Then add the meat stock (or salt water), cover the dutch oven, and let the mixture cook until the potatoes are soft. Make sure to stir every so often so the potatoes don’t stick to the bottom of the dutch oven. The dish should be ready in half an hour. Once it is cooked through, sprinkle chopped parsley over it. Serve these potatoes with beef steak, sausages, or other meat dishes.

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