My mother was a good cook, better than her mother and almost as good as her husband’s. Never vain about her ability or lack thereof, like her husband, she always aspired to be better. Always willing to learn, my mother persistently attended to Grandmother Halfrida’s culinary practices.
She didn’t mind being called Grandma, by the way. In the presence of her husband August, however, it was to be Grandmother. Grandfather August was a man of honor, meaning he was both capable and reliable. To be both required discipline. Possessing all four traits, he commanded respect. He also demanded respect. He was, therefore, not shy about disciplining the rest of us in the family whenever he thought it necessary and proper.
Grandmother Halfrida went along with her husband. As a person of discipline herself, she wasn’t shy about passing that on. However, while Grandfather August conducted himself like a military officer, she performed like a pastor. Both of them could exhort and encourage, but August seemed to rely more on the former while Halfrida relied more on the latter.
My father exhorted my mother to learn how to cook some of the dishes he had learned to like growing up. His parents had been staunch about maintaining authentic ethnic cooking, and Halfrida expressed willingness to share her expertise.
Here are some words to chew on representing what my mother — as alternatives to normal American fare — fed my father, my sister, and me.
Hasenpfeffer. Marinated, seasoned, and braised rabbit.
Koenigsberger Klopse. German meat balls made with a combination of beef, veal, and pork.
Gugelhupf. A cake-like bread made from batter rather than dough.
Lebkuchen. German honey cakes.
Marzipan. Almond paste candy.
Muerbeteig. A rich egg pastry.
Nockerln. Another version of dumplings.
Pfeffernuessse. Hard cookies made with pepper.
Schnecken. Snail-shaped buns.
Springerle. Cookies flavored with anise.
Jaegertorte. German hunter’s cake flavored with lots of almond and a little lemon and frosted with chocolate.
My mother prepared cabbage Bavarian style, which meant it was flavored with onions, bacon, and vinegar. Despite the last ingredient, I could swallow it more easily than German potato salad because it also had brown sugar.
More easy to swallow was Sauerbraten, a pot roast of beef that has been soaked for days in spiced vinegar, then cooked. What helped was the gravy made with gingersnaps.
Less easy to swallow was Sauerkraut. That’s German for fermented cabbage. And that’s all it is: cabbage allowed to ferment in a salt-water brine.
Bread of some kind was served with every meal.
We ate a lot of sausage: bratwurst, mettwurst, liverwurst, knockwurst, and others. That included kinds both Polish and American.
Spaetzel was a favorite of my father. I liked them, too. The name refers to tiny egg dumplings. As an alternative, we ate mashed potato dumplings called Kartoffel Kloesse.
I remember an occasion one autumn when Grandmother had encouraged my mother to demonstrate some of her newly acquired culinary skills to the entire family. Entire meant not only Mother and Father, my sister, and myself, but also Grandfather August and Grandmother Halfrida, Uncle Manfred and his wife Margaret with their three children, and Aunt Karla and her husband Joseph with their three children. That was quite a group for whom to prepare a schnitzel dinner with all the appetizers, sides, drinks, and dessert.
It was also quite a group for whom to make table. My father had anticipated such an event early in his marriage, though. The rooms of the lower level of the house flowed into one another, so more than one could be used for dining. He also made sure to make a table that could be expanded as the family expanded.
At that dinner, Uncle Manfred decided to go by what may be termed corporate initials. He was an executive climbing the corporate ladder at a big paper products company in Green Bay. With memories of World War 2 still strong when he started working there, he didn’t want his name to cause him or anyone else trouble. So, at first he chose to go by Fred.
That was fine until he earned a significant promotion. A situation comedy starring cartoon cave people had just become a hit television program, and Uncle Manfred became uncomfortable with his nickname. As an executive, he said he could no longer tolerate a name that had become so well associated with a buffoon. Needing something more respectable, he pondered, “I wonder if I can get away with Manfred.”
Indignant, Grandfather August asked, “And why not? That is your name, after all. It is the good name your mother and I gave you.” Manfred means man of peace; it refers to one who is heroic in being the champion of peace.
Uncle Manfred had no peace with himself, however. He said, “But what do people think when they hear the name? Manfred von Richtofen, the Red Baron, a World War 1 German fighter pilot who shot down eighty Allied flyers.”
“You don’t want to be thought of as an ace in business?” Aunt Margaret asked.
“I don’t want to be thought of as an enemy.”
“I think of Mighty Manfred,” I said.
The other kids at the table started to snicker.
“Who?” Uncle Manfred asked.
“Manfred the Wonder Dog,” I repeated. He was the sidekick of another cartoon character who appeared on a popular network children’s TV show weekday mornings. The dog caused wonder mainly in his ability to sleep through anything.
“Oh, that helps,” said Uncle Manfred. “Actually, I was thinking of going by Charles.” That was his middle name. “You know. As in Charles Martel. Charles Dickens. Charles Lindbergh. Charles Goodyear. Charles Pfizer.”
“Charles Ives,” my aunt Karla added.
My sister Kristel added the star of a popular comic-strip having the same first name as his creator (who happened to be a good Methodist).
The kids at the table laughed again.
Then my father couldn’t resist adding, “Since you’re in charge of obtaining pulpwood for the mill, you can go by Wood Chuck.”
That did it. Uncle Manfred announced he would go by M.C. thereafter. And it stuck.