Under My Foreign Vine and Fig Tree – The German Housewife

This is the first article in January of the School for Housewives 1907 series published on January 6, 1907, and is a continuation of last year’s talk on keeping house in foreign countries and what can be learned.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of Boston Sunday Post.

Under My Foreign Vine and Fig Tree

The German Housewife

Before entering upon the consideration of the German cuisine, I am moved by a sense of justice and by sincere admiration for the national hausfrau to say a few words of her.

Housewifery is an honorable profession in in Germany. In all ranks it is studied by the women from childhood, and practiced at every age. The wonderful land owes more to the intelligent thrift of her women than can be appreciated in America, where kitchen duties are reckoned “menial” by rich parvenus who spend the rest of their lives in forgetting the steps by which they have climbed to the height which has turned their heads, and college girls glory in their utter ignorance of practical housewifery. Fathers, sons and husbands have more time and calmer thought for acquiring learning which has made them great because daughters, mothers and wives assume the care and conduct of domestic affairs and prove themselves competent to the undertaking.


Our hausfrau does the marketing even after she drives to market in her own carriage, and is too shrewd in selection and bargaining to be outwitted by the merchant. The fine stock phrases that retain the custom of the mechanic’s and day laborer’s wife in our country pass for sounding air with the Teutonic marketer. She knows the worth of meat, vegetables, groceries and fruits as well as if she had sold as well as bought them from babyhood. She keeps a sharp eye upon the scales; is rigid as to scraps and trimmings that belong to the purchaser; she is a judge of fish, and wide-awake to its dietetic and economic values; she knows how to utilize second-rate fruits, but she will not pay full price for what is not excellent. The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her management of raw materials after she has bought them wisely. She rules larder and kitchen as efficiently as he controls shop, counting-room, office and class-room. For every pound of meat, every handful of herbs, sent home, she expects to receive an account. The crude ingredients are an investment, and she will demand her interest regularly. Wastefulness is a crime; the mistress who condones extravagance in cook, butler or housemaid is recreant to her trust.

To her such a judge the “easy ways” of the traveling America are a continual marvel. She has heard tales that rival Grimm’s stories of genii and fairy godmothers, of the mighty fortunes made and spent in the transatlantic “States.” The rapid making of what grows slowly, if steadily, in her native land may be a mystery to her. She is at no loss to comprehend on what swift wings riches fly away when once she has marked our works and ways in the household.


In turn, the American resident for one or more seasons in a German town is loftily disdainful of the appointments of the apartment—usually paid for by the room—in which she bestows her family and portable belongings, with the fixed intention of living after the manner of the country for three, six or twelve months, while the children study German (the mother says “while they learn it”), and she visits galleries and gets bargains in lace and amber.

There is no furnace for warming the living rooms. The salon is disfigured by a huge porcelain stove, planted stubbornly in one corner. Mark Twain is not the only traveler who likens it to a family monument. After some weeks of dependence upon it for all the warmth that can be coaxed into the lofty room with its dreary outlook through casement windows upon sunless skies, the exile overcomes the sense of graveyard chill and gloom excited by the tall, hard, white construction she cannot screen or drape. The bedrooms are luxurious—almost to sinfulness, thinks the hausfrau —if they are supplied with smaller cenotaphs.

The kitchen is probably small, paved with stone or brick, furnished sparsely, and often destitute of hot and cold water. Most of the utensils are wooden.

Then, it you keep late hours, you will have to face a reproachful “hausmeister,” or janitor, who religiously closes the outer door at 10 P.M. Woe be it to you if you should forget the enormous key he gives you when you announce your intention of staying out until midnight! You will pay a fee to be allowed to enter your own domicile and grope your way upstairs in inky blackness by the ghastly illumination of your Sulphur matches.

Nevertheless, housekeeping in Germany has wonderful compensations in a comparatively unstrained servant question. Where two maids can be had from $8 to $10 a month, and the two of them do twice as much work as any two over here would, with laundry included and plain sewing thrown in; when the police can compel them to stay with you up to the time for which they contracted, there, indeed, is a distracted American housekeeper’s haven of rest.

This police surveillance of servants is curious. Each maid must register at the nearest station when taking a place, and the policeman can arbitrate in case of a dispute. He also inspects the maids’ rooms to see that they are in proper condition.

Every German servant musty give two weeks’ warning or a month before leaving a place. Her mistress, at her departure, will write her character in a book, which she must show at her next place.

If, in pondering upon these items which differentiate the servant problem of the German housewife from that which wears her American sister into an untimely grave, we are moved to amusement by the recollection of the high and mightiness of imported Anna, Martha, Gretchen and Dorothea when they inquire on this side of the ocean into our recommendations to their confidence, their society and putative services for a consideration that grows bigger every month—if, I say, we be moved to momentary mirth, our mood soon changes. For, why should we, the most imitative and progressive nation upon earth, lag so far behind the conservative Teutons in what lays the corner-stone of domestic comfort?


It is a relief to scarified national complacency to pass on to the home laundry system of our hausfrau and compare it with ours. Lavish as we account ourselves to be in the matter of household plenishing, few families outside of the millionaire belt can boast of keeping in store twelve dozen of each kind of bed, table and body linen. The rule of twelve is imperative in the German household. Washing is done but once a month; sometimes but once in six weeks in some families; respectable and well to-do quarterly! As garments, bedclothes and napery are soiled by wear and use they are carried off to “die Boden,” a big upper chamber furnished with clotheslines, there to hang until the next washday. The foreigner who recoils from the idea of festering perspiration and bacteria and begs for the privilege of paying handsomely for a weekly washday is regarded with wondering suspicion.

“Yours must be a dirty people!” was the comment of a blunt hausfrau when I told her that we sent our clothes to the laundry every Monday, and that washing was done every day in some wealthy families, laundresses being engaged to do nothing else.

The unconscious humor of the remark was ample compensation for the rudeness to one who had that day chanced to pass the open door of “die Boden.”

They undoubtedly have the advantage of us in respect to family mending—the bugbear of our housemother. Her German sister, as a rule, employs a visiting seamstress, who once a week does the mending for the absurd salary of from $1.50 to $2 a month.


Being safely domiciled, if you are going to be really German you will rise at 7 o’clock for the “Erstes Fruhstuck,” or first breakfast, consisting of coffee or tea and rolls.

At 10 o’clock comes the “Zweites Fruhstuck,” or second breakfast, when one’s fainting spirit is sustained with sandwiches, fresh or stewed fruit, cold sausage and beer. In the season, pears, apples and cherries are plentiful and good; the peaches, while as fine as ours, are rarer and expensive; and the berries, particularly blackberries and wild strawberries, are very nice.

Except among the higher classes, “Mittagsessen,” or dinner is eaten in the middle of the day, from 12 to 2. Business is suspended for this function and the children come home from school, where they have been since 7 o’clock if it happens to be summer, or since 8 in winter. After dinner most of the men rest for an hour. Another un-American custom.

A truly German dinner always has soup; perhaps a lentil soup, with soaked and boiled lentils and small pieces of sausage added to a rich beef stock; or, even more characteristic, the much loved “Biersuppe,” or beer soup, made with a pint, each, of milk and water, one-half pint of light beer, three ounces of currants, three ounces of flour, three ounces of sugar, two spoonful of salt, and the yolk of an egg.

I digress from the line of narrative at this point, to avow frankly my disrelish for certain distinctively German soups. Aside from my exceptional aversion to chocolate in any form, I do not think a sweet, thin preparation of chocolate, served in soup-plates as the first course of a dinner, appetizing or wholesome. The custom savors too much of the ultra-economical expedient of the early housewives of New England, who served Indian meal pudding before the meat course, to blunt desire for the costlier food. Nor did I ever learn to like a queer broth based upon ripe rose-pips. They were pounded fine and cooked in weak stock, and a few whole pips, cooked tender, were left to float upon the surface of each plateful.


With meat courses are served potatoes and one other vegetable.

The meat may perhaps be a roast, sometimes seasoned with onions. Seedless raisins are roasted with beef or they are added to the gravy.

Then there is the much-loved “Hasenbratten,” or wild hare, larded with bacon and roasted. Again it may be “Sauerbratten,” or a pot roast laid down in spiced vinegar for several days beforehand, then roasted and dished with a gravy of the spiced vinegar and browned juices.

Around the “Sauerbratten” are dished “Kloese,” or potato balls, mashed potatoes moulded around small blocks of toast and fried in butter. “Pfefferkuchen,” a sort of gingerbread, is also cut in pieces and used in the gravy to thicken it.

A favorite dish for Sunday dinner is a large cabbage parboiled and cooled before the centre is removed and filled with a finely chopped raw meat. Then it is boiled in a cloth so that it keeps its shape. It is sliced into wedge-shaped pieces at the table.

In Scott’s immortal lines beginning:

“At Christmas time the bells were rung,
At Christmas time the mass was sung,”

We read:

“Nor fails old Scotland to produce
At that glad time her savory goose.”

Substitute “Germany” for “Scotland,” and you have the record of a culinary custom as invariable in the Kaiser’s realm as the appearance of roast turkey at an English or American Christmas dinner.

Dessert and black coffee are served together. Cream puddings are extremely popular, always with a fruit sauce. Pies and tarts never have a top crust, and the shells are generally bought at a confectioner’s and filled with whipped cream and fruit conserves. The ice cream is like our frozen custard flavored with fruits, and is helped in tiny portions. Whipped cream is served with almost all cream cakes and tarts.


At 4 o’clock comes the “Kaffee,” which, when it becomes a formal function where women are invited to bring their work or to play whist, becomes the far-famed “Kaffee Klatsch.” Here one has coffee which is delicious when served in the German way, in the little brass coffee pot in which it is made. A piece of white “coffee paper” (something like blotting paper) is usually placed over the holes of the perculator to cause slower dripping, and thus to gain the full strength of the coffee.

Here, also, one has the many delicious “Kuchen,” or cakes, such as “Kaffee Kuchen,” or coffee cake; “Nuss Kuchern,” or nut cake; apple, peach and cheese kuchen, “Honigkuchen,” or honey cakes. If it happens to be Lent, there will be the marvelous “Berliner Pfanne Kuchen,” or so-called pancakes. In reality, they are more like our dough-nuts, with jelly imbedded in them, fried in boiling fat. Often, too, there is smooth, rich German chocolate with whipped cream.

Between 6 and 8 o’clock comes supper, or “Abendessen,” with a half-dozen or more kinds of cold meats; uncooked smoked “Liverwurst,” or liver sausage, “Cervalatewurst,” made of the best smoked pork, and that crowning delicacy, to the German taste, raw ham, cut very thin and eaten with salt and pepper. It is served on snowy white individual wooden plates. Yet the immigrant German will hesitate long before eating this in America even though the best Westphalian hams are said to be imported.

This habit of eating uncooked ham is undoubtedly the reason of the fearful distrust of American pork awakened in Germany by the tales of trichinae-poisoning in our country. The baleful germs may be killed by long boiling. They are rampant in raw meat.

Another favorite uncooked meat is Beef a la Tartare, simply raw Hamburger flavored with chopped onion, salt and pepper and covered with a raw egg.

With the supper meats go a fish or other heavy salad, pumpernickel sandwiches, cut very thin, with cheese between, and some of the beautiful preserved fruits in which housekeepers take such pride. Sweet pumpernickel is often grated and served with whipped cream.

No German woman would allow a caller to be in her home ten minutes without pressing upon her something to eat. This form of hospitality is not so onerous as it sounds, for in addition to a well-stocked larder one can send out the maid with a little plate and get, freshly cut, a half-dozen varieties of beautifully sliced meat, every kind of cake and tart, and for 10 cents enough cream ready whipped for half a dozen people.

If one is going to the opera, and most music-loving Germans go several times a week during the season, supper is earlier and afterward the cafes are frequented. German women, strange to say, while they drink their beer at symphony concerts, rarely take anything to drink at cafes, contenting themselves with an ice or tart.

German Recipes (Contributed).


Sugar, one pound.
Cinnamon, two teaspoonfuls.
Nutmeg, two teaspoonfuls.
Four eggs.
Flour, one pound.
A little pepper.

Beat the sugar with the yolks for a quarter of an hour. Put in the spices and flour, mould into little round cakes about the size of a soda biscuit. Bake slowly on iron sheets. Frost with plain icing.


Warm milk, one-half cup.
Butter, one-quarter pound.
Sugar, five tablespoonfuls.
Yolks of four eggs.
Peel of one lemon, grated.
One yeast cake.
Flour, one pound.
A few bitter almonds.

Dissolve the yeast in warm milk, stir with the salt into the flour till a soft dough is formed. Stand in a warm place over night to rise. In the morning, melt the butter, add the sugar, well-beaten yolks, lemon peel and grated almonds. Mix well and let it stand until very light. Roll into sheets about two inches thick, and cut round. On the top of each cake put currant jelly or jam, and fold over the corners, moistening with a little water to close the edges. Let them rise again. Drop in boiling lard to fry like doughnuts. Dust with powdered sugar.


Soak five or six pounds of meat in a spiced vinegar, for three or four days in summer, eight to ten days in winter. Spice the vinegar highly with mixed spices ground fine, three bay leaves and peppercorns, and boil. Put the meat in this in a deep bowl and cover with a plate. Turn the meat every day, but do not insert a fork.

Take out the meat, lard with bacon, bake in a saucepan like a pot roast, adding a few carrots and a little onion. Just before serving, remove the roast, pour off most of the fat, add a little browned flour and some of the spiced vinegar. Serve in a sauceboat or pour around the roast.


Butter, one pound.
Flour, one and a quarter pounds.
Sixteen eggs.
Sugar, one and a quarter pounds.
Bitter almonds, one-eight pound.
Peel of one lemon, grated.
One yeast cake.

Beat the eggs and sugar together, then add the flavoring, flour and yeast. Let it rise till very light. Then roll in sheets. Spread with melted butter, sprinkle with grated almonds and cinnamon, and bake in a moderate oven.

This cake may be varied by the addition of raisins and currants. It may also be formed into a twist or plait, or for children is sometimes cut into little men, with currants for eyes. The plaited cake is always iced with a plain unboiled icing.

Marion Harland

The Housemothers’ Exchange

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