Ich Bin Ein Berliner

Oct. 2, 2011

Bored out of my gizzard with icons, I decided to impose a bit more carbon debt on my children, their children and their chlidren’s children (not to mention their grandchildren and their grandchildren) so I could enjoy at least one more beer al fresco before the autumn gets here in earnest. Thinking why go halfway about such things, I wound up in Berlin on Friday enjoying a very fine German pilsner along with a bowl of potato soup. It was about 79° in Berlin on Friday and the sky was a particularly nice shade of blue. It might have been better in the Tiergarten than my hotel restaurant, but there is something to be said for have a nosh by the pool just a stroll from the opportunity for a good nap, should that strike your fancy.

This all being said, you understand, not in the form of a travelogue but solely in the Thornapple Blog’s spirit of finding particularly significant food experiences to celebrate from time to time. A fine German pilsner drank outdoors on a sunny day is certainly one of them, and especially (so I learned) when it accompanies a Berlin bowl of potato soup.  This is not the cream style soup I’ve come to expect, but a light broth flavored with what the Euros call rocket greens, onions and carrots. This (and the potatoes, of course) floats around a rather nice Wiener sausage.

We’ve covered wieners in the Thornapple blog recently, so I won’t go there. Nor will there be jokes about “The wurst is yet to come!” What I will point out is that in Berlin (or elsewhere in Europe) the capitalized Wiener is intended to convey meanings that never would have occurred to me as an all-American boy growing up in 1950s Colorado. Of course we would have been much more likely to call them “hotdogs”, and for us wiener was just another name for the same thing. No, on a warm late September afternoon sitting by the pool on and enjoying your pilsner, Wiener sausage means “in the style of Vienna”. This is nothing at all like what we mean when we talk about Vienna sausage (which I also like, but am mocked incessantly when I am caught with an empty can in the trash). No, it’s more like what we actually call a Vienna-style hotdog, or what, when you order a Chicago-style hotdog is referred to by the trade name of Vienna Beef. Not exactly, you understand. I rather thought this Wiener sausage in my potato soup was something a little more special, though it could have been the warm sun, the glint off the pool or the pilsner.

But to come back to the point, this is called a Wiener sausage (that’s what it said in the English menu I ordered from) rather than a Vienna hotdog because it is, after all, a sausage in the style of Wien, which is what the Germans and the Austrians call Vienna. Not that you could get a proper German sausage by ordering a Berliner instead of a Wiener. If you did that, they would bring you a jelly donut, which is, of course, a pastry in the style of Berlin.

Some of the more dust-laden readers of the Thornapple blog will remember when President John F. Kennedy voiced his support for the Germans isolated in West Berlin during the cold war by flying to Berlin not for a beer and potato soup but to deliver a stirring speech whose capstone line was “Ich bin ein Berliner”. History has since struggled with the question of why the Leader of the Free World would have thought it useful or appropriate to inform the rapt crowd (not to mention the international community following his address through the media) that he was a jelly donut.

Well, the Thornapple Blog is here to resolve this historical puzzle! The answer is to be found in in the Nebra Sky Disc, which I was able to consult during my visit to Halle (Salle), just a couple of hours from Berlin (and the true purpose of my trip). It’s worth Googling “Nebra Sky Disc” so you have some idea what I am talking about here. This meaning of this ancient artifact found on the Mittelberg mountain has been debated by scholars. Some think it is a calendar, others think it is the first recorded version of the ubiquitous “Smiley Face” icon.  I was able to definitively discern that this is actually the world’s earliest known example of lithographed advertising. The disc represents a cereal bowl being filled with a shower of cornflakes and banana. The large orb represents our friend Mr. Sun, who still appears on boxes of Kellogg’s Raisin Bran to this day.

Amazingly tuned in to the importance of a hearty breakfast for a man of his time, Kennedy was intuitively connected to the spirit of this important 3600 year old Germanic artifact. He expressed the deeper meaning of his mystical connection to the wider world by avowing solidarity with a breakfast food he took to be of especially deep significance for the people of the city he was visiting. I will be writing all this up for publication in an important scholarly journal over the coming months.

But you, dear readers, know today!

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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