After a month and a half of tangling with bureaucracy, bellyaching over budgets and nearly driving myself crazy with the amount of free time I had on my hands, I finally got a job.
I work at a supermarket chain collecting items for customers’ online orders and packing them neatly into boxes. I get to carry around a neat little scanner and push around a large shopping cart and learn the location of even the most obscure supermarket products, from Studentenfütter (which literally translates to student food and turns out to be a type of trail mix) to mango-flavored buttermilk (yes, Germans drink plain buttermilk, how gross) to Hüttenkäse (which literally translates to “little hut cheese,” which, as you may have guessed, is cottage cheese in English).
I’ve worked in food service before at a university cafeteria, but this feels totally different because I don’t feel like I’m actually handling food all day, I’m only handling packaging. And while I don’t mind this job, it is a bit depressing to see how unhealthy people eat – as in the U.S., frozen pizzas, canned soup and microwaveable dinners seem to be staples of many peoples’ diets. Not to mention chips and sweets (Haribo and Milka are not the only candy manufacturers in Germany) and, of course, dirt-cheap alcohol. I had one order today in which the customer had ordered 18 bottles of Gordon’s Dry Gin, along with 18 bottles of Schweppes’ Indian Tonic Water. (I can only assume he was giving a party, or else was a serious alcoholic). And the cost, for 18 liters of 40% alcohol? €180, at just under €10 a bottle.
Some more things I have learned about German food culture, both from living here and talking to Germans as well as from working in a supermarket:
- Americans don’t know dairy products. Our staples are pretty much limited to milk, cream, butter, yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream and cream cheese. At bigger supermarkets you might find buttermilk and creme fraiche. In addition to all of these, Germans also have quark, some sort of thick milk-based substance that you can spread on bread or eat with a spoon. In Germany, you can also find any of the above products with at least two different percentages of fat content, and often in many different flavors – fruity flavors for yogurt and buttermilk, and flavors like herbs, paprika or garlic for cream cheese, quark and butter.
- There are many more types of bread in the world than I was previously aware of. I think this one is true for Denmark and Holland, too. Regular “toast” bread isn’t so popular here in Germany, and plain fluffy white bread is rare to come by. Instead, they prefer everything from a medium-dark whole wheat bread, to nut breads, to the extremely dark rye breads. I’ve seen sunflower seed bread, pumpkin seed bread, carrot bread, potato bread, whole grain bread and protein bread, just to name a few. If a German invites you over for breakfast, they will probably serve at least two different types of sliced bread with various toppings to spread on it, including quark, cream cheese, cheese slices, deli meat slices, butter, jam, or Nutella. In Holland (and I think maybe Belgium, too) they put chocolate sprinkles on their bread. Bread with stuff on it is considered a full meal in this part of the world – just look at the Danish national dish, smørrebrød.
- Germans freaking love carbonated water. One of my least favorite orders to fill is when people order 6-packs or crates of bottled water, partly because I’m judging them for wasting money and destroying the environment, partly because they’re freaking heavy to carry and haul around, and partly because it’s nearly impossible to find the right one that they ordered, because there are so many different types. In addition to all of the different companies that produce bottled water, there are also different levels of carbonation and additives, from natural or still water to mineral, medium and “sprudel.” While my roommate and I prefer not to waste our meager earnings on something we can get from the tap for free, most German households have a stack of large 1-liter bottles of carbonated water at the bottom of the pantry, to drink during mealtime. People don’t understand when I tell them I prefer tap water – they’re like “no, it’s okay, we have plenty of mineral water, you don’t have to drink from the tap.”
- Early summer is strawberry and asparagus season. (This one I got from my own observations, not the supermarket). At some point in May or June, hundreds of little strawberry-shaped kiosks begin popping up around town to sell fresh local asparagus and berries. Strawberries are the most popular, but I’ve also seen raspberries, blueberries and cherries. Asparagus has a special place in German food culture. I’m still trying to understand it, but I think it’s partly because it’s a sign of summer, and partly because people grew up eating asparagus cream soup as kids and it holds a special place in their hearts. While I’m used to green asparagus from central Washington, grilled or steamed and eaten fresh, Germans prefer the thicker, blander stalks of white asparagus, most commonly cooked in the equally-bland cream soup (whose appeal I have yet to understand). Many restaurants even put a special “Asparagus menu” insert into their regular menus during this season.