Saturday, November 19, 2005

An American Thanksgiving in Berlin

About two months ago my German in-laws gave me a request which made me swallow hard… they wanted to experience this whole American Thanksgiving phenomenon. Of course they have no idea about Macy’s or any silly parade, they don’t know about listening to “Alice’s Restaurant”, they think watching American football is silly, and very seldom do they eat until getting up from the table seems like an impossible chore. Let alone eventually retiring to a more comfortable chair in a turkey-induced cloud to listen to your annoying brother-in-law/uncle/next door neighbor talk non-stop about his garden/new car/Christmas lights/stamp collection. No, I’m pretty sure my in-laws aren’t really ready for that.

What they are ready for is the famous dinner. I have been thinking about all the things I’ve eaten and served for the legendary Turkey Day. Of course there is the turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, candied yams, and dammit you had better have saved room for some pie with whipped cream! Several quick trips to and I’m armed with a reasonable shopping list, now I just need to find a store in Berlin that carries these supplies.

This turns out to be even harder than I imagined. If I were in America I wouldn’t be able to walk the aisles of my local grocery store without almost being hit over the head with all the makings for the famous meal. The first thing I realized is that I should have brought my pie plates. Who knew I wouldn’t be able to find one here? Germans love cake, they have no idea what a pie is… the closest they come is some kind of torte. Forget finding that cool can of pumpkin goop that has a great recipe right on the side for making the “traditional pumpkin pie”. The next thing is stuffing. With all the bread in this country, you would think they might have come up with something to do with the old stuff… but NO!! The closest I can come to herb-seasoned bread crumbs is a handful of croutons which are sold for €1 a box. Oh, and the cranberry sauce that makes it to many gussied-up American Thanksgiving tables still in the shape of its original can… non-existent in German supermarkets. Oh, and HEY. Something I’ve run across before has hit me hard again! They have no condensed mushroom soup! No, not even some off-brand goofy Campbell’s knock-off… Their easy to make soups all come in a dry packet ready for water or milk. DAMN! How am I going to make Green Bean Casserole!!!??

Today I hit four grocery stores in Berlin hoping to be able to cross some needed items from my list. The first was a run of the mill grocery store named Reichelt. They had turkeys (der Puter-Tom Turkey or die Pute -Tina Turkey) which really surprised me and raised my hopes. Unfortunately I couldn’t find anything else on my list there. I did however encounter every 80-year-old within a two mile radius of the store. They all had their little 3 wheeled walkers and a death-wish for anyone getting in their way!

Next up was Wal-Mart. This was actually rather ironic for me. Firstly because I tried very hard to not patronize Wal-Mart when I was in America… so here I am heading off for the dreaded Wally World. Second on the ironic scale, to me Wal-Mart has always felt like a Turkish Bazaar without the bargaining – a bunch of cheap crap. I think Berlin only has one Wal-Mart and oddly enough it is in one of the Turkish neighborhoods... rather fitting, eh?

Wal-Mart maintains a small American section, so I was hoping to find something Thanksgiving related. With 80,000 Americans in the city, maybe they would take advantage of their name and become the place Americans visit to get those hard-to-get American items. I did manage to find Crisco, which is something the Germans have no substitute for… and I saw Pam, which is unheard of here as well. But no mini-marshmallows for the candied yams or canned pumpkin pie stuff which I was eager to see. They do stock brand-name microwave popcorn and off-brand peanut butter, but I wasn’t interested.

The fun part of my trip to Wal-Mart was the lame shopping cart that thumped and thudded and generally made a racket the whole time I was there. In Germany it is very hard to just ditch your cart because they have a sure-fire way to get you to return your own cart. In order to get it from the cart line you must put in either a Euro or a plug Euro to disconnect it from the rest of them. Since I already had my little plug in the cart I decided to continue with my new friend lumpy. All throughout the store people kept turning and looking at me as I passed. I imagined they were looking with envy at my nice-looking and reasonably priced coat with its matching scarf and gloves… but in retrospect I suspect they were not.

Next I headed to the tourist area of town to visit the antithesis of Wal-Mart, the KaDeWe. This is a HUGE world-famous, 100-year-old department store that is a “must see” for every sightseer coming to Berlin. This is not to say that most people can afford anything they find at the KaDeWe (Kaa Dee Vee – Kaufhaus des Westerns – Department Store of the West). This is the kind of place that has its own Waterford Crystal area, as well as Gucci, Hilfiger, Salvatore Ferragamo, and Armani. Those that know me are now asking what in the world Snooker would want with such a place… Well, they also have a famous 6th floor which has a bunch of different restaurants serving everything from fish specialties, to German standards, to sushi. It is also chock-a-bock filled with all kinds of specialty food items which could inspire the culinary arts in almost anyone. They reportedly had a lot of hard to get American foods, so I wanted to check out what they had.

As soon as I walked into this grand palace the difference between this place and Wal-Mart hit me. They had an impressive lobby with a 50ft Christmas tree all decked out in gold and red which matched the window dressings I had seen walking along the sidewalk, as well as thousands of tasteful white lights covering everything that didn’t move and a few things that did… no silly plastic Santas or Father Christmases here! This is the kind of place that the employees are required to be fluent in six languages and will offer you a personal shopper if you feel the need and have enough plastic in your wallet. I had to fight my way around the tree elbow to elbow with women and men in designer clothes and mink coats. That closeness didn’t end in the lobby, it continued to the escalator where I learned immediately that most of these people aren’t German… um, if you are going to stand on the escalator and not continue walking, then get the hell to the right side and clear an aisle on the left for those of us wanting to continue moving!!

Finally I got to the sixth floor only to see that all those people in the lobby had left their mates up here. The restaurants were standing room only and all the cash registers were humming along as people dropped 35 Euro on a can of herring, or 275 on a thumbnail of caviar. The specialty cooking items are spread all over the floor itself, placed willy-nilly between the restaurants so I proceeded to squeeze through the people to see what I could find. Once I stood in place longer than a minute or two as I perused the fresh fish case and was asked by a very friendly saleswoman if she could be of help to me. Suppressing my initial reaction to immediately order the incredibly expensive smoked salmon I had been eyeing, I asked her if she knew where I could get a turkey figuring that if they had turkeys somewhere the other American items couldn’t be far… She was quite sweet and pointed me in the right direction. When I saw the rows of freezers I knew I was in the right place!! Not far from there I saw something I was looking for… I spent €5.99 ($7.05) on a small box of Stove Top Stuffing! Can you believe it!!?? Although I looked around the area carefully, I never saw any of the other items on my list… oh well. At least our guests won’t have to have a “traditional” Thanksgiving Meal without crappy box stuffing…

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