Silke Burmester asks how German breakfast culture can be saved.
For some reason or other, my mother would never let me leave the house without breakfast. It was as if she thought I might collapse before I’d taken my bike out of the shed, and definitely by the time I reached school – even though she’d packed enough break-time sandwiches and fruit to feed three. But later, during my first stays abroad, I was amazed how carelessly people in other countries dealt with their diet. I saw children who were sent to school after eating just half a croissant, Spanish kids who drank coffee in a bar to wash down fatty pastries, the ones that we’d normally eat in the afternoons. And they all survived the day without collapsing. Even the little English schoolboy, who devoured about a kilo of sugar each week with his cornflakes when I was working as an au pair girl, seemed a bit pale but healthy enough.
In Germany, breakfast is regarded as the most important meal of the day. And when we get out of bed in the morning in a foreign country, most of us start hunting for black bread, or at least rye bread or granary rolls, sliced sausage and cheese. And when we discover that such things aren’t on the early morning agenda, in fact they only bake white bread and accompany it with jam or marmalade, then we realize: there will be something missing from our day. So, it’s hardly surprising that wherever we Germans go, we’ll find a German bakery. In other words, places that sell the things we like to put our sliced sausage and cheese on. You can find these shops in Arab countries, too, and it’s not just the German expats who enjoy their products. Meanwhile, as German bread is gradually conquering the world in a way that is usually associated with American coffee house chains and the Chinese mitten crab, the international chains are bringing us new foods that are gradually weaning the younger generation away from the pleasures of traditional black bread. Nowadays, it’s the fashion to eat a muffin for breakfast, or a bagel. People go to the Portuguese deli to buy the cheese and ham version of the classic croissant which is heated on a kind of table grill. But, sitting down at a table is a thing of the past. People now eat as they move, preferably while walking.
Is German breakfast culture a dying tradition? Just like only old grannies use evaporated milk, will it be entirely old fashioned to eat bread for breakfast? Well, all is not lost yet – especially when the “German Backkunst”, the art of baking, is discovered and reinvented by an American. When rye bread is baked in separate portions and imaginative shapes then covered with cheese in a star shape and labelled “Greysta” or “Mumpy” in a coffeehouse chain. When Lady Gaga says that there’s nothing more delicious than poppy seed rolls and a boiled egg for breakfast, or when Robert Pattinson is photographed as he spreads a slice of black bread in the morning. Eating a German breakfast could well become incredibly cool. So long as the kids don’t notice what exactly they’re eating. Mind you, when you see how full the breakfast cafés are in Berlin, where guests from around the world sit until the early afternoon enjoying their bread rolls, meats and cheeses – it certainly looks as if the breakfast trend is experiencing a comeback. ▪
Silke Burmester lives and works in Hamburg as a journalist and lecturer. She is a columnist for die tageszeitung in Berlin and Spiegel online. She also writes for publications including the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.