20 December 2008


As of Tuesday afternoon my final papers and grades for my students were all handed in. Phew. That's that for this semester. Now I just need to finish up the spring semester (last spring)...

Wednesday was devoted to running errands, cleaning up and getting ready for the holidays. The snow storm in the northeast put a crimp in my original travel plans, and I had to load up a rental car with things and cats on Thursday instead of Friday, so as to safely drive home. So now I find myself in CT at my parents' home. The cats have settled in, the snow fell and I thought I would finally catch up with "Of Verdant Thoughts" after a week long hiatus.

"Gemütlichkeit" is a classic German word and concept. Literally, it translates as "coziness" or "snugness," but it really means much more. "Gemütlichkeit" represents candle light, good company, warmth, comfort, feeling at ease and not rushed, etc. Germans love to have a strong sense of "Gemütlichkeit" at home, with company and, above all, when they eat. Rushed meals are frowned upon. As are meals lit by neon lights. Though a country like Spain clearly has a food and comfort culture of their own, I recall encountering many brightly lit restaurants while trying new places with my German mother, who visited me while I studied there in college. No no, somehow the meaning and pleasure of eating a meal with loved ones seems diminished by harsh lights.

It might not be difficult to make a connection between my adherence to a calm and relaxing morning ritual and a desire for "Gemütlichkeit." As I already mentioned, my mother is German. My childhood was a German one, though predominantly staged in the U.S. We followed many German traditions, our holidays were always celebrated following (secularized) German rituals (especially Christmas and Easter) and our day-to-day existence was largely influenced by certain German (or European) ideas of "joie de vivre." Life was "gemütlich."

As is often the case, the "Germanness" could largely be seen in food. But I do not mean that we ate "German" food. It is not so much what we ate, but rather how we ate it. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were eaten as a family at the table. (When my brother and I were at school, or my father at work, lunch, obviously, was not a shared, family meal.) Candles were lit, the table set properly, and we sat, ate, manners and civility were observed and conversation enjoyed. No one would have ever considered rushing to get away from the table. Even when we went out for dinner, it was as a family and we never hurried our meal.

This appreciation of food culture and the adherence to etiquette strongly influenced my current opinions of food and food culture. Eating well and with good company has made me more aware of what is actually on the plate. Even while living and often eating alone, I strongly desire to recreate the sense of "Gemütlichkeit" that can be found at my parents' table. As my morning ritual suggests, I try never to eat a rushed meal. I want to savor the food I prepared for myself and enjoy the connection it has to the local community. My beliefs and customs are completely secularized, but they are no less meaningful.
Knowing that a snow storm loomed, I easily envisioned a "gemütlich" evening at home Friday night with my parents. I pictured the snow falling, candles and the lights of the Christmas tree shining in the dimly lit room. With the winter-wonderland theme, I could imagine nothing more appropriate than the hearty, social swiss meal, "Käsefondue" (cheese fondue). Before getting the rental car Thursday morning, I headed to a Philly institution and an excellent source for cheese: DiBruno Brothers. Following the recommendations of a Swiss roommate I had when living in Boston, I bought 300 grams of Gruyere, 150 grams of Appenzeller and 150 grams of Vacherin for the fondue.
Late Friday afternoon I began to grate the 3 cheeses. I then rubbed a fondue pot with a clove of garlic, heated a little more than 1/2 cup of dry white wine with nutmeg and pepper. To the hot but not boiling wine I slowly added the cheese until melted. The final step is adding a shot of Kirschwasser with 1 teaspoon of cornstarch (or another thickening agent) to the cheese and stirring until the right consistency is acheived. While I prepared the fondue, my mother cut up a good, crusty bread into 1-2 inch chunks and prepared a salad.
When eating fondue, it is traditional to first briefly dip the bread in Kirschwasser before dipping it into the cheese. This should only be done with high quality Kirschwasser, however. The local liquor store only had a cheap variation, which was fine for cooking, but not for dipping! So we skipped that first step. The perfect compliment to such a rich meal is a simple green salad and a nice white wine (or prosecco!).

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