Dixie Peach: Good Timing on My Part

Cooler than the other side of the pillow.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Good Timing on My Part

The fall of the Berlin Wall is what enabled me to meet and marry my husband. And the fall of the Berlin Wall is what enabled me to survive living in Germany because had there been a way for me to meet and marry my husband before the demise of East Germany, there's no way I could have coped. The whole food thing in East Germany would be just too much for me to handle.

My husband, who was born and raised and lived the first thirty years of his life in the former East Germany will be the first to say that he did not starve while growing up. He and his family - a regular working class East Germany family...maybe a bit better off because my FIL always worked an enormous amount of overtime to enable the family to have a bit more - always had enough to eat, even if what they had to eat wasn't gourmet fare. Here's a bit of how food was back in East Germany.

This would have perhaps been my biggest nightmare. Grocery stores were open until 6pm and one store in town was open until about 8:30pm. As for weekend shopping, grocery stores were open every other Saturday until about noon. I assume this meant that you either got out of work and rushed to the shops before closing time or you did like my MIL did and shop on your lunch hour (most women in East Germany had jobs outside the home). Which store you shopped at was generally a matter of convenience and perhaps a bit of who-you-know. Prices were the same in every store, country-wide. It's a good thing that people were spared from scouting for the best price because you were going to need that time to stand in line. Not just lines to check out but even long lines to buy hard-to-find products. There's an old joke that if East Germans saw a line somewhere, they'd automatically go stand in it without even knowing why people were lining up. That may be an exaggeration but it's not much of one.

The real key to living well and getting what you needed in East Germany was the network of people one would spend years carefully building. My MIL was (and still is) a master at this. A bone of contention in the family is the hard feelings created between my MIL and her SIL over the SIL taking advantage of and embarrassing my MIL with the network of merchants my MIL had. A network of merchants would not get you better prices - God forbid the government be cheated out of one Pfennig - but it could get you products that were notorously hard to find. Say you needed to get things for Christmas or a birthday celebration. You're going to need things like liquor, better cuts of meat, snack foods and perhaps fruits. If you'd made friends with the butcher and the grocer and had started preparations well in advance, you could have those things set aside for you by the merchants so you could buy them instead of having them available to the general public. In turn you could perhaps help them get things they needed or maybe you'd just do something nice for them like bring them cake or flowers (cut flowers were not always readily available back then so they were a much appreciated gift). Treat your network of merchants well and you'd be sure to be able to pull off a special event with the things you really needed.

In Germany - east or west - pork is the most popular meat. One could generally find most cuts of pork available in East Germany but cuts like fillet were rare. If you'd arranged it with the butcher in your network of merchants, you could get it set aside for you...but it was crazy expensive. Beef was less popular and not as available. Grilled chicken was (and still is) popular and was easily bought at sale stands everywhere. Wursts and Aufschnitt (cold cuts) were also easy to buy. Not every sort of meat was available all the time but there was always some sort of meat to eat.

Virtually all dairy products - milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, quark and condensed milk - were readily available. The one exception was whipping cream. Spray whipped cream didn't exist and sometimes cream to whip up yourself wasn't available. If you didn't have cream to whip then cooks would use milk and butter and whip the hell out of them together until it turned into whipped cream.

Fruits and vegetables that were most common were things that were grown in East Germany. Potatoes were most popular and were always available but when it got to be late winter and the new potatoes hadn't yet been harvested you may be pulling your potatoes out of a slimy pile. Kohlrabi, asparagus, carrots, cabbage, beets, green beans and peas, tomatoes, bell peppers, leeks - all were available but only in season...out of season canned vegetable were eaten - frozen veggies weren't all that common. Fruits like apples, pears, peaches, apricots, cherries and strawberries were available in season and citrus fruits like oranges and tangerines were available around the Christmas holiday season - and one should be prepared to stand in a long line to get them. My husband recalls bananas being available fairly often but many times they were pretty sorry bananas. He said the times the best bananas were available were at Christmas and when West Germany markets bought too many bananas and to get rid of them quickly they'd sell them to the East German government.

Sweets and Snacks
Chocolate was available but it wasn't a great quality. B reports that it tasted gritty. A finer grade of chocolate was available but it was also five times more expensive than the regular stuff. Potato chips and popcorn weren't available. A common snack item would be pretzels and they were not always available so plan ahead if you're throwing a party! Soft drinks were easy to get but there was no Coke or Pepsi. The East German brands were Vita-Cola or Club Cola. Vita-Cola is still sold and I've drank it a couple times. I'll stick with Coke, thanks.

Hard or Impossible to Buy Things
The things that I would take for granted - sauce mixes and pre-packed frozen meals - really didn't exist. Virtually all cooking was done from scratch. There were some exceptions. There was a pasta sauce called Carnito - one variety with ground meat and one with meat balls. It is still sold and to me tastes like the vile sauce in Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee canned pasta. And there's a sauce made of strips of red bell peppers with tomato sauce called Letscho that is also still sold - very tasty! Other sauces and gravies - Hollandaise, brown sauce, fish sauces, cream sauces, mushroom gravies - all were made from scratch.

Coffee was easy to buy but extremely expensive - so expensive that it would be considered wasteful to throw out any undrunk coffee. There was a time when it was hard to get and a story my MIL always tell is how she and B's dad scrimped and saved to buy a little packet of coffee for Christmas - enough for one pot only because that's all they could get. Two of B's uncles, who were drunk, dropped in on them, walked into the kitchen, found the coffee, brewed it and drank it up themselves and left my in-laws with no coffee for Christmas.

Mustard and mayonnaise were easy to buy but ketchup was a luxury. If there was any for sale, count on standing in a long line to get it. Twice a year in Leipzig there was a convention of merchants from around the world and regular East Germans could go there and buy many items that were nearly impossible to get otherwise. B remembers going there with his parents and one of his assigned duties was to stand in line for hours to buy a couple bottles of ketchup.

Tomorrow I'll go grocery shopping and with driving there, buying what I need, loading it in the car, driving home and getting inside I'll use about an hour - and to me that's an big chunk of my time. An hour and I'll have virtually everything I want and have food that comes from all around the world. All that hour would get me on an East German shopping trip is maybe halfway though the line to get a kilo of oranges. Good thing that Berlin Wall is down. I don't have any extra time to spare.



Anonymous umarah said...

thanks for the post dixie.i dont know too many people who lived in east germany and their thank you again.

12:06 AM  
Blogger Rositta said...

Interesting post Dixie, my mother was born in Greifswald (DDR) and after we came to Canada if she hadn't sent care packages with US dollars hidden inside her family would have had a hard life. I still have a few cousins, one of whom I've met. He insists though that things were better then than now! I still can't figure that out. Ask you MIL if that is true. I remember once in the late 70's my mothers one and only trip across the border she had 4 suitcases filled with food and had to bribe the border guards to let her bring it in. Some day I will go there and visit what's left of my mother's family and the place of her birth, I owe her that...ciao

2:27 AM  
Blogger Dixie said...

umarah - I never knew anyone from East Germany until I met my husband and one of the things I've enjoyed most is learning how things were back then.

Rositta - I read your comment to my husband and when he heard your cousins lived in Greifswald he could understand how your cousin could say that things were better back then. People there got the full dose of DDR doctrine because they didn't have access to West German TV or radio - it's too far east. Were we live was far enough west that West German TV could be seen here and they could learn how their government lied to them. Most of the people who insist all things were better in the DDR were people who lived outside of contact with the west. The rest would say that some things were better in the DDR (people were closer with one another, all people worked, etc.) but they would never want to go back to DDR times.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you, Dixie. Very good information and so interesting.
Some of the things you mentioned are still unavailable in Mexico, like pre-packaged frozen meals. Also, Cool-Whip. Stuff you never think twice about until it just doesn't exist.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Marshamlow said...

Thanks Dixie I love these stories learning about East Germany then and now. I wonder if a cup of coffee or an orange tastes better when it is a once a year treat that you saved for and stood in line for an hour to get? We don't really have very many things like that in our lives any more. We have access to so much that it is all very ordinary.

3:37 PM  
Blogger jane said...

great post, thanks!

i am wondering about beer - am assuming it was as readily available as ever, but i'd be interested to hear about it from you. having lived in munich, i'm well aware of bavarian beer culture, but no clue about any other german beer culture - especially in the east before the curtain fell!


3:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

American in Germany whose partner is from Dresden. When I first arrived I too lived in Dresden, about 11 years after the Wall fell. I too LEARNED history that was NEVER even thought about in USA history classes. Relative to bananas and oranges ... each person was given a ration ticket for ONE of each EACH Christmas. And yes, the Stassi had plenty all the time.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Rositta said...

Yes your husband is right, people were told that life in the east was so good the was was to protect them from the western influx. Of course we know it was a lie but most easterners didn't so so there was virtually no protest. There was only one cousin who was a party member and she informed on a goodly number of her own relative causing them to land in jail, sad but true. When I saw the film Das Leben der Anderen I cried...ciao and have a drink to freedom.

3:30 AM  
Blogger Dixie said...

Molly - I miss Cool Whip was just so convenient!

Marsha - I am going to bet that things they had a hard time getting or were super expensive did taste better to them. I know that's the case when I get foods from home that I can't buy here.

Jane - Beer was easy for them to get. Liquor was harder for them to get when they wanted it but I'll guess that vodka wasn't so hard to get.

Anon - My husband's experience was that oranges, etc. may have limits on them but they didn't have ration tickets for them. I suppose each city was different. And you're absolutely right - those in the Stasi didn't have to do without anything.

Rositta - I once saw an interview on TV with a West German writer and who purposely went to live in a part of East Germany that couldn't get West German TV/radio. He said after a few months of East-only TV even he started to believe the lies the government would pump out.

11:56 PM  

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