Let’s enjoy the carnival of the inflation. It’s loads of fun and paper, printed paper, flimsy stuff — do they still call it money? … Krupp and Stinnes get rid of their debts, we of our savings. The profiteers dance in the palace hotels.
–Klaus Mann (1923)
The capital of Germany’s Weimar Republic (1919–1933), Berlin alone was home to some twenty thousand eateries. The immense number reflected not so much a diversity of tastes for cuisine as a panoply of preferences for entertainment. In keeping with the spirit of the times, those latter tastes often ran to the grotesque and the perverse. Many of the metropolis’s restaurateurs augmented their bill of fare, top-heavy with hearty German staples, with marvels astonishing and often terrible to behold. A restaurant’s real draw was not so much the tenderness of its roast pork nor the pungency of its sauerkraut as it was the arresting spectacle of its stage show.
To the distinction between dining and merely feeding no one was more alive than Charles Dickens. For him, any refreshment to be gotten from a meal was merely incidental. The true importance of dinner lay not in the dishes that laden the table but in the fellowship to be had around it.
In believing that conviviality trumped digestion, Dickens showed himself quintessentially a Victorian gentleman. Dining in company became cherished entertainment in the nineteenth century, Victorian appetites grown keener for the wit and charm of friends and family than for any cutlet or custard. You can imagine, then, Dickens’s horror upon visiting the United States in 1842 for a comprehensive tour and discovering that Americans reduced mealtime to a barren silence punctuated only by the moist mechanics of ingestion.
The eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, native of the Prussian town of Königsberg and a towering figure in Western thought, was in life a rather diminutive man. His writing reveals that he rued his stature, his “flat and narrow chest” in particular. Yet his negative opinion of it appears to have rested on concerns of well-being rather than personal vanity: A chest as slight as his, he wrote, accommodated but “little movement for the heart and lungs.” Similarly cramped must have been his stomach, for it often troubled him. Such complaints notwithstanding, Kant would frequently put to friends the question, “Is it possible to conceive a human being with more perfect health than myself?” Though the question may be thought to mask a boast, it’s likely Kant really sought validation of his daily habits, which were as regular as they were salubrious.