Here in Bavaria, I’ve heard the expression “Das ist mir (völlig) Wurst” or sometimes even “Wurscht”. It means, “It doesn’t matter to me” or “It’s all the same to me”. I don’t believe this expression is unique to Bavaria, but I have noticed it more here than in Nordrhein-Westfalen, where I was an exchange student. In that part of Germany, I more commonly heard “Das ist mir egal” to mean the same thing.
I think it’s culturally telling that, to say that something doesn’t matter, it’s like “Wurst”. Because let’s face it, Wurst – sausage – is a part of daily life in German culture.
Take Weisswurst, for example. This is a particular kind of sausage that the city of München is known for; traditionally, it is eaten for breakfast with perhaps some yummy sweet mustard, a Breze (pretzel) or Semmel (roll) and washed down with some beer. I believe that you were supposed to eat this sausage before noon to guarantee freshness and quality. I love Weisswurst; it’s traditionally made with veal, some pork and has a mild flavor. I think it’s usually flavored with parsley, maybe some onion and I wonder if it has a touch of nutmeg in it. For my friends from upstate New York, I’d say that Zwiegle’s White Hots are the only other white sausage I’ve ever seen that is comparable to the Munich Weisswurst, although they’re really not the same thing at all.
Recently, I read this interesting article in Smithsonian Magazine titled For German Butchers, a Wurst Case Scenario, by Andrew D. Blechman. It’s quite long, so I won’t copy the article here, but if you’re interested in German culture, I suggest you give this a read. The comments are interesting to read, too. For example, there’s a whole discussion on the translation of “Fleisch” – yes, it does mean meat rather than flesh, but I think when it comes down to it, the heart of the word comes from the idea of “flesh”.
The premise of the article is that the art of high-quality butchery is dying out in Germany, and that younger Germans may not always appreciate the difference between generic products you buy in the grocery and the tastier products you would purchase at the local, reputable butcher’s shop. Although some of the commentators disagree with this assessment, I think I would agree that the small butcher shops have been disappearing. I remember when I visited my host family a few years after my stay in Germany, and the local butcher’s shop was closed due to retirement and lack of interest in other family members to carry on the business. My host mother was sad about this because she said she loved their products the best, and now had to go to the next town over to buy from a different local, quality butcher. I don’t think that’s an uncommon occurrence. For my part, I distinctly remembered the delicious scent of the air near that butcher’s shop: it was smoky and porky, and tempting. No longer did that little corner of Stommeln smell so good; no longer did owners attach their dogs to the “dog-parking” outside the butcher’s shop while they went in to pick up their Aufschnitt (an assortment of cold cuts for the yummy supper Abendbrot).
I thought I would pull out a few quotations from the article that particularly struck me:
A favorite children’s food, a bologna-like luncheon meat, is called by the curious term “flesh sausage.” No family visit to the meat counter is complete without a free slice of “flesh sausage” rolled up and handed to a smiling youngster in a stroller. Few things put me in a pensive mood like hearing my daughter cry out in delight, “Flesh, Papa! I want more Fleisch!”
Although my daughter doesn’t clamor for Fleischwurst (yet?), she is always offered this treat from the deli whenever we stop at the counter (whether in a grocery store or at a local butcher’s). It’s like a veal bologna, quite mild and it is really tasty! At a local butcher’s shop in Bad Tölz, one of the men who works behind the counter slices off very thick pieces for the kids and seems to enjoy handing them out to the children, hands outstretched for their Wurst. Rosebud, however, often nibbles at her Wurst and then ends up flinging it in the grocery cart or worse, in my purse! Maybe she will develop a taste for it when she’s older, as she is not much of a meat eater at this stage.
The Bratwurst, a favorite of Goethe’s, can be traced at least as far back as the 15th century, when the Bratwurst Purity Law outlawed the use of rancid, wormy or pustulated meat. These days Bratwursts are generally served at food stands, where they are mechanically sliced into medallions, smothered with a sweet, rust-colored condiment called “curry ketchup” and sprinkled with bland curry powder.
The author talks about Currywurst here; sometimes it’s not a Bratwurst that is served for a Currywurst, but a different kind of sausage (the name of which escapes me). The curry ketchup is honestly not one of my favorite things, but Germans seem fond of it. I think it was probably invented by Turkish immigrants. And despite my feelings about curry ketchup, I do love Currywurst.
To gain a better understanding of the history of the profession, Gero had recommended a visit to the German butchers museum in a village near Stuttgart. An ardent medievalist who, when he can, spends weekends in drafty castles dressed in artfully tailored period costumes, Gero speaks excitedly about the museum’s collection of ornate treasure chests, which played a prominent role at secretive and highly ritualized candlelit gatherings of the medieval butchers’ guilds.
“It’s difficult to overemphasize the critical role the master butcher has played in Germany’s cultural heritage,” he tells me. “France has its cheese and cheese makers; Germany has its sausages and sausage makers.”
Throughout our conversation, Gero draws a distinction between meat and sausage, which I had always thought of as one and the same. “Meat is meat,” Gero explains, “but sausage carries the culture.”
Gero is, by the way, a spokesman for the German Butcher’s Association. I thought his assertion that “sausage carries the culture” is also telling. I don’t believe every German would agree with that, especially since vegetarianism is accepted here (more so than in France, I’d say), but at the same time, I think most Germans couldn’t probably imagine a world without Wurst.
The article only briefly touches on how the common market regulations here are making it more difficult for artisanal products to be made. In France, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten an earful from a French person defending their right to have fresh, unpasteurized cheese. I agree with them, because these cheeses are delicious, only locally available, and you know the person who made that cheese in the little cheese shop. But with common market laws here in the European Union, it is getting more and more difficult for those kinds of products to exist (although perhaps more to the point, these products can only be sold in that particular locale, I believe, and I do see that as a very positive thing). It’s a similar story with meat products here. In fact, Anthony Bourdain discussed this phenomenon a little bit on his show No Reservations, when he was in Prague (Czech Republic). It seems that EU regulations favor mass production for the sake of having a safe food supply. That’s possibly a post for another time, fans of Michael Pollan.