The exhibit ‘Eating and Drinking in Germany’ (Is(s) Was?!) at the Haus der Geschichte museum is well worth a visit as it interactively offers a spectrum of the changes in the food culture which Germany has experienced in the last decades. Covering a sixty-year period, it traces the many trends and habits that have been incorporated into cuisine, dining and our relationship to food.
Currywurst, baked camel recipe and the circling pig: Germany’s food culture on display at Haus der Geschichte
by Nasima Akaloo
The exhibit ‘Eating and Drinking in Germany’ (Is(s) Was?!) at the Haus der Geschichte museum is well worth a visit as it interactively offers a spectrum of the changes in the food culture which Germany has experienced in the last decades. Covering a sixty-year period, it traces the many trends and habits that have been incorporated into cuisine, dining and our relationship to food. From the changing roles of women and the widespread popularity of pre-cooked meals to the preeminence of pork in the German diet and the use of grain for energy and fuel, the exhibit offers the public a diverse, ludic and all-encompassing insight into a topic which is and has been an essential component of many cultures and societies. In this sense, the inclusion of posters, film and television series’ excerpts as well as quotes from chefs, activists and ordinary citizens aptly reflect its diversity and pervasiveness. Part of the exhibit is also dedicated to ‘ethnic food’ in Germany, ranging from Japanese and Turkish to the omnipresent Italian cuisine. Not only can the visitor enjoy funny videos of how to eat spaghetti or find out what the connection between the German SPD party and ‘currywurst’ is, but the curious will also be piqued by a baked camel recipe for 400 people and the history behind some of the most respected dishes in German culture.
The organic food trend as well as alternative lifestyles and restaurants also feature prominently in the exhibition. ‘Bio-supermarkets’ are no longer viewed as exceptional and in an interactive quiz, the visitor learns that there are approximately 7 million vegetarians and 700,000 vegans in Germany. Nonetheless, the proportion of Germans whose daily diet consists of meat is a whopping 85 percent! In one exhibition room, the public is confronted with the debate over the availability of a wide range of choices together with (sometimes) illegal methods to keep prices low and increase competition. Food scandals have increasingly drawn wide media attention amid unease among consumers. In Germany, people spend a little over 10 percent of their income on food and drink.
Protest posters from the late 1980s are also on display, criticizing the use of grain and oat flakes as animal feed, which created shortages for human consumption back then. In another poster from the NGO ‘Brot für die Welt’, the use of corn for fuel is also condemned. Genetically-modified foods and the public’s reaction as well as resistance from environment groups also receive some attention in this temporary exhibition.
In mapping the evolution of society’s relationship to food, one hall also pays homage to the famine in Germany after the Second World War as well as the food shortages that were quite common in East Germany. Examples of resistance to today’s ‘supply glut’ and food wastage are the existence of ‘Tafeln’, ‘non-profit food banks’ that collect surplus food supplies and re-distribute it to the needy, as well as the food and waste-conscious ‘bin divers’ who protest against the mentality of excess by retrieving what has been dumped. One panel attributes most of the food wastage to private households (61 percent), followed by large-scale consumers and industry (together 34 percent).
Also of interest are the many photos and personal stories depicting cultural differences, religious rules and food rituals. Fasting during the Muslim month of Ramadhan, the Hindu abstinence from beef and the Jewish kosher practice are all traditions which have found their way into the German food experience. In this part of the exhibit, the visitor therefore finds out how dietary laws and rituals influence not only what is eaten but when food is served.
The central role of coffee and chocolate is also not overlooked. In one small room, for example, the visitor can learn about the rise in coffee smuggling because of the high coffee tax in West Germany (until 1953) or the uproar in the 1970s in East Germany following the introduction of ‘mixed coffee’ as a result of a ground coffee crisis. The public’s reaction was such that the ersatz coffee had to be removed from the shelves! You can learn about all this and more at the temporary ‘Food and Drink’ exhibition now running in Bonn!