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German Food & Folkways: Heirloom Memories From Europe, South Russia & the Great Plains

Review by Ingeborg W. Smith, Western Springs, Illinois

Gueldner, Rose Marie. German Food and Folkways: Heirloom Memories from Europe, South Russia, and the Great Plains. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2002.


I have a whole bookcase full of cookbooks, some of them in German, but no cookbook quite like this one. It is not just a compendium of recipes, but it is historical, emphasizing the food traditions of the Germans who were invited to Russia by Catherine the Great. Many of these people re-emigrated from Russia to the Great Plains of the New World but kept their old folkways.

Some people use cookbooks as bedtime reading and this one lends itself to this use, perhaps because it has fewer recipes than the standard book of this kind, and contains more background information. It is probably one of very few such volumes that contains a bibliography. There are also a glossary and a list of "Sources and Resources."

German Food & Folkways is the result of four years of research and data-gathering and one year of writing by Rose Marie H. Gueldner, an educator, historian, writer and businesswoman, and a descendant of Germans from Russia. It is not your standard cookbook, but a history of the Germans from Russia, where they came from, how they got to Russia, and how the German food traditions were changed by conditions in Russia, especially the climate and the short growing season, which produced an emphasis on root vegetables and cabbage.

We learn that Frederick II was instrumental in adding the potato to the German diet during the food shortages in the 1700's, that peanut butter was introduced as a health food at the
1904 St. Louis Exposition, plus a host of other interesting facts.

As a descendant of both North and South Germans, I expected to find a few more familiar dishes. My mother made her egg noodles from scratch and I was familiar with brains, heart and tongue, all found in this book, but strudel as a main dish stuffed with cabbage and cooked on top of meat and potatoes did not remind me of Apfelstrudel I grew up with. Happily, desserts, bread and Kuchen will each be the subject of other books by Ms. Gueldner.

The beginning of each chapter repeats the cover design, a collection of items used in the kitchen, a butter churn, a pail, a meat grinder, rolling pin, foaming beer stein, eggs, beets, etc. Drawings of individual foods grace various pages. Several maps are included. There is even a chapter on mealtime prayers. Ms. Gueldner promotes good organic ingredients and healthful eating.

Each chapter starts with a general discussion and then proceeds to the recipes, which may include further discussion. Ms. Gueldner's recipe for Farmyard Roast Goose reminded me of the Christmas goose I roasted four years ago. This goose, the smallest one I could order at my local market, weighed 10 pounds, and cost $40.00, and served three, with no leftovers at all. Geese had more meat on them when I was young. Ms. Gueldner's recipe uses an 8 to 12 lb. goose and expects it to produce 4 to 18 servings. She suggests serving this fowl with potato dumplings, applesauce or red cabbage, for which no recipes are forthcoming.

The section on beverages includes a page on water and the former necessary chore of hauling it to the fields as well as pumping it for the house. In Jimmy Carter's memoir of his boyhood, An Hour Before Daylight, he comments that the easiest way to bring water to the fields was in the form of watermelon. That's the spirit, Jimmy!

I enjoyed reading this book and got a few tips on how to improve my own cooking. I also learned a little German dialect--that anyone would call a potato (Kartoffel) Grumbeere or Grumbara, some sort of berry is certainly new to me.

While I find that the quotation on the back cover attributed to Brother Placid Gross, OSB, Folklorist: "This book is the crowning achievement of all cookbooks", to be an exaggeration, I believe that more to the point is Dr. Timothy F. Kloberdanz's conclusion: "Although there are German-Russian cookbooks currently on the market, this one is quite unusual because of the way it interweaves background history, ethnic heritage, and so many mouth-watering Old Country recipes." I concur.

Our appreciation is extended to Ingeborg W. Smith for review of this book.

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