A “sweet” memory recently surfaced: At our annual exchange program family potluck, one of the German students nervously confided that her American mother’s contribution was DIRT CAKE! Following my chocolaty explanation, she rejoined her friends there in the GHS cafeteria – less horrified although perhaps not completely convinced. Later I wondered how she might have reacted to MUD PIE, a modern version of MISSISSIPPI MUD CAKE from WWII.
One delightful advantage of international travel is its adventures-in-food aspect. Those unwilling to take the culinary plunge are missing out on lots of tasty fun – and the occasional inedible error. Believe me, navigating German rules of etiquette and family cuisine with a few teen travelers too picky to try anything new had gray hairs popping out on this group leader’s head!
Sometimes the mere name of an unfamiliar food causes problems. Direct translation certainly has created concern and confusion for me on multiple occasions.
In fact, I once suspected group trickery at the ice cream café in downtown Springe. My students raved about the Spaghettieis (SPAGHETTI ICE CREAM) and urged me to order it. Not relishing the thought of a pasta-flavored dessert, I nonetheless came face-to-face with a dish of just that. And, boy, was it yummy: soft-serve ice cream extruded into long strands, topped with raspberry sauce and crumbled white chocolate. Lecker! (DELICIOUS)
I’m not sure that good old American POKE CAKE would make a tourist’s stomach churn, but there might be questions. Since the JELL-O ads in the 1970s suggested it, we have been poking holes in our cakes and filling them with sauces, chocolate, jams, carbonated beverages – the gooier the better. I even saw a recipe for a poke version of Elvis Presley Cake, filled with pineapple sauce and covered with cream cheese frosting and crushed pecans. Worth a nibble or two at Graceland – and just about anywhere else on the globe!
Uninformed diners might hesitate to partake of LADYFINGERS until they realize these goodies are not human digits but crumbly cookie/biscuits absorbing syrups and liqueurs in such elegant desserts as trifles, charlottes – and tiramisu. Oh, for a sliver of the ultimate decadence: chocolate, expresso, mascarpone cheese layered with LADYFINGERS soaking up all that goodness…
Food names from the world of nature frequently give hungry people on both sides of the ocean pause. How about cakes named for birds? Of course, HUMMINGBIRD CAKE does not actually contain those tiny, fluttery creatures with the elongated beaks hovering in our gardens. This banana-pineapple spice cake with cream cheese icing originated in Jamaica and has migrated to the southern regions of the U.S. And it so happens that the hummingbird is the national bird of that Caribbean island.
Similarly, nowhere in Papageienkuchen (PARROT CAKE) will anyone find the bird itself, only its bright colors. It is a rainbow cake for German youngsters, popular for birthdays. The recipe seems to have originated in former East Germany, and I have never personally tasted it. I haven’t tried HUMMINGBIRD CAKE either – maybe someday I’ll do both!
With the mention of pies with “interesting” names, some fellow Americans might recall that stunt show, Fear Factor, from a few years back, the one with contestants choking down bugs, roadkill, and the eyeballs from various animals.
Thus, we must assure visitors to our shores that GRASSHOPPER PIE contains no insects – only a fluffy, minty filling in a chocolate cookie crust. Likewise, no one should fear SHOOFLY PIE, fortunately featuring a molasses flavor with brown sugar topping.
Clarification is also key to guests in Germany unsure about indulging in a slice of Baumkuchen (TREE CAKE). This dessert is specifically baked to give an appearance similar to the rings of a tree just felled.
And then there is a favorite of mine: Zwiebelkuchen, translating to ONION CAKE.
Yes, ONION CAKE, a savory dish containing real onions, is traditionally served with Neuwein (NEW WINE) during the grape harvest. This cake in no way similar in texture or construction to a Duncan-Hinestype cake – with a bunch of onions tossed into the batter. There is no batter, but a crust base covered with a thick layer of caramelized onions, the entire concoction resembling a deep-dish pizza. It’s popular near the vineyards in southern Germany where I lived during my college term there. Lecker! (DELICIOUS)
I’d like to know what foreign visitors think of ANGEL FOOD CAKE and DEVIL’S FOOD CAKE, but I also want to describe Kalter Hund (COLD DOG), sometimes referred to as Kalte Schnauze (COLD SNOUT). According to blogs accompanying the recipe, this no-bake cake is rich, smooth, and crunchy. The loaf pan containing alternate layers of chocolate and tea cookies is not put into the oven for baking but into the fridge for solidifying. The condensation eventually forming atop this canine-inspired cake is reminiscent of Fido’s cold nose.
Speaking of animals, it would be interesting to know what foreign tourists envision when we suggest a HOT DOG at a ballgame or offer a PIG-IN-A-BLANKET as an appetizer or casual finger food. Makes one wonder…
One last personal recollection: In Germany, whenever I spied Pizza Funghi on a pizzeria menu, I invariably ignored my knowledge that the name meant MUSHROOM PIZZA – and not FUNGUS PIZZA as I always silently translated to myself!
And a final question for contemplation: How traumatized would that German girl have been if her American host mother had brought DEATH BY CHOCOLATE to our potluck?
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.