Monday, December 7, 2015

Writing Lab: Of Late I Think of Germany

When it comes to my identity as a person, it's probably fair to say that I don't necessarily consider myself to have one at all. At least not in the same way I feel other people do. I'm not a down comforter or a wool blanket. I feel more like a patchwork quilt -- something that's quite literally made of very random bits all stitched together to create something else that is motley by definition.

For one thing, I'm very mixed ethnically. (My dad is African American and Blackfoot Indian. My mom is of Irish and Scottish descent.) My parents are two very different colors and are very obviously from different ethnic backgrounds. However, my brother and I were sort of raised to see ourselves as colorless -- just "American" without any further elaboration.

Ethnicity and culture were not concepts that were celebrated in our home the way they were in other people's households. I think the desired effect was for the two of us to grow up seeing ourselves as belonging everywhere and with everyone. I can't speak for my brother, but I think the opposite happened to me. Culturally speaking, I felt more like I belonged nowhere and around nobody, especially since I look so racially ambiguous that it's not immediately obvious to most people what my background might be. I'm clearly not white, but I confuse people. If they really want to know, they have to ask (and they always ask).

Since we were military, we moved a lot as well, so that made it difficult to form lasting connections with places or with other people. I don't really consider myself to have a hometown in any real sense and I don't have friendships that go all the way back to kindergarten or anything. Instead of being a person with clear roots and a cultural identity -- the usual things that dictate which foods make you feel the most nostalgic and rooted -- I feel like I'm lots of things all at the same time. Both everything and nothing all at once, so I suppose my personal "time travel" foods are chosen according to a different logic.


Everyone has that one thing that they're so "into", so passionate about, that their entire face lights up if you ask them about it. That one thing that they never get tired of talking about. For me, that one thing is probably food. I feel really comfortable saying that I love everything to do with food. I love cooking it, eating it, reading about it, and studying it. 

Food is also quite possibly one of the only things that almost flawlessly allows me to connect to other people -- to cultures, places, and times. Places I've never been, but also places I have. It can bring me back to a high school friendship that I've forgotten all about or to a place I haven't visited in decades with spot-on accuracy. That said, little patchwork me could have come up with a million different ways to respond to this prompt, but I still immediately remembered my early childhood in Aschaffenburg,Germany. 

In particular, I remembered the intoxicating smell and taste of certain foods, especially those that you could count on running into at an outdoor market or a fair in the fall or winter. Juicy, fatty bratwursts practically bursting out of their skins and smelling like heaven on earth as they're tucked into soft, warm German rolls. Steamy soft pretzels with rock salt and German mustard. Spiced Christmas cookies dusted with powdered sugar and smelling faintly of licorice. All experienced along with the high, crisp, white scent of winter air and freshly fallen snow. 

I was born in Germany. We moved around a bit before coming back to Germany when I was around kindergarten age, but I remember having my first self-aware thoughts as a human being in Germany. My earliest memories all take place in Germany and Germany was where I was when I first started to consider food and notice details like the way a market smells when someone is grilling bratwurst or selling freshly baked pretzels. 

I haven't set foot on German soil since I was maybe seven years old, but every so often, I'll smell one of those smells and immediately exclaim: "Oh, man! This place smells like Germany." Or I'll eat one of those foods prepared just the right way to taste exactly the same as they did when I first had them as a child -- especially German bratwurst or knockwurst -- and I'll instantly remember so many wonderful things about living there. 

That happened when Seth and I made genuine beer brats for the first time a little while back and again when I tried whole grain European mustard for what I thought was the first time. (Nope! Apparently had it in Germany, because it brought the place flooding right back.) It happens every time there's a cookie included in a holiday assortment with the same flavor profile as pfeffernüsse. The foods I eat are always important ties to things I've done, places I've visited, or people I've known -- but there's something very special about the ones that are linked to Germany for me. 

Those foods and those memories stand out because they also remind me of what it was like to be a child that is so young as to still be stainlessly innocent and filled to bursting with childlike wonder. I remember what it was like to know beyond the shadow of any doubt that I could trust any adult to protect me. I remember how free and easy life was when my most pressing worry was what you wanted to be for Halloween or what to ask Santa Claus to bring you for Christmas. I miss that, as I'm sure most jaded adults do, so it's amazing to be able to bite into something as humble as a sausage and suddenly remember it all just like it was yesterday.