Authenticity has a price


Wolfgang Kaschuba – native Swabian of Eastern Prussian descent, Kreuzberger by choice, and regular Markthalle Neun shopper – is a director emeritus of the Institute for European Ethnology at the Humboldt University of Berlin, and the current founding director of the Berlin Institute for Integration and Migration Research. He lives and breathes socio-urban discussions and phenomena in theory and practice. We met for lunch and talked about fried potatoes, canned ravioli, and the price of authenticity.

Mr. Kaschuba, do we here in Germany have a basic problem with our culinary identity?

Well, in fact, in Germany there are very few core socio-culinary facets – no matter the social stratum like working-class, middle-class or regional cuisine – that have survived down through the generations and retained their cultural meaning. And by survived, I mean as an identity-forming experience, not a cliché. Whereas the culinary traditions of France, Italy and Spain are manifold and easy to identify.

Are people in those countries prouder of their cuisine? Does their food simply taste better?

A major factor is the social role attached to food. After German cuisine had only just begun to identify cultural aspects of itself in the 19th century, it insisted on celebrating them at lunch, while the Mediterranean kitchen focused on dinner. The traditions have remained strong in those countries, while the work patterns of the postmodern age have turned the midday feast into a brief lunch or standing snack. Germans had to rediscover what it means to dine in the evening by going on vacation.

We had to re-learn the value of handmade sourdough bread and Teltower turnips …

The phenomenon is well-illustrated by the career of Bratkartoffeln, German fried potatoes. They began as a humble rural dish of ill repute, easily displaced by convenience products such as frozen french fries and croquettes, were revived by the new celebration of the handmade and the regional, and have now risen like a phoenix from the ashes, becoming one of the most high-priced side dishes.

So handmade food is experiencing a boom?

That has much to do with tactile perception – the act of touching, feeling, sensing with the hands. All products that can claim to be handmade have come to be seen as virtuous and desirable again. Going back to postwar reconstruction society, canned ravioli trumped handmade food twice over. Back then, shopping at the supermarket was a status symbol.

Canned ravioli nowadays is still unbeatably cheap, at least.

The obvious rejoinder to that one is: authenticity has its price. No matter the kind of authenticity – truly fair, organic, or hardcore local – it costs dearly. In time, energy, spirit, and of course money. And that rule doesn’t stop at food. It applies to all areas of life.

Do you see us as a society becoming more inclined to pay the prices that authenticity demands?

What I see is a society in which authentic experiences are becoming more important again. And I experience food as an arena in which we search for them.

Where do the fiercly arguments within the food philosophy discourse fit into the picture?

Funnily enough, whether a good Catholic eats fish on Fridays, or Maultaschen, Swabian filled pasta squares, is a question that has become a negotiable matter in the secularized world of the 20th century, while these days, the level of radicalization in some debates is alarming. On the bright side, it does highlight the significance of food in today’s world. The contents of one’s pantry can be used to take a political stand and stigmatize others. We have a very strong tendency to consolidate ourselves into a society of lifestyles, and culinary culture is currently one of the most potent defining markers of those.

What does the society you describe look like?

Take the Breakfast Market here at Markthalle Neun. You have a coming together of people of many different ages, genders, incomes and religions. Yet while the social backgrounds of that non-homogenous group may vary, they’re united under one roof by one interest – food culture. This group doesn’t have 17 identical common markers – I’m Catholic, a bricklayer, member of a rifle club, love football, drink beer. The group is rather formed as an open project around the common focus of culinary culture. And the openness of it, that initial non-homogeneity, is fertile ground for growth.

Are we talking about Germany? Or just Berlin?

Actually, Berlin is a lot like a laboratory. And I think it’s really interesting that now there are quite a few projects in midsized cities that imitate big urbanity: You can find city beaches, urban gardening and street food markets from Flensburg to Konstanz.

Interview by Clemens Niedenthal