Walking down the aisles of my local San Francisco grocery store last April, it was like I’d suddenly found myself behind the Iron Curtain. Aisles typically stocked with all-purpose flour and boxes of rigatoni and linguine pasta were nearly bare, save for a couple bags of cake flour and some whole wheat spaghetti that, for whatever reason, nobody wanted to touch. Produce bins regularly filled with mandarins and romaine lettuce were depleted, too, so I stocked my cart with a few shrunken oranges and a bag of nutritionally questionable iceberg lettuce instead. Grabbing the last packages of frozen hamburger meat and pork chops I could find, I thought back to stories my friend Maria had told me about her life growing up in East Germany. Were empty market shelves, which were a regular occurrence in the GDR, about to become our new norm as well?
From October 1949 until October 1990, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or East Germany, was a separate German state: one that was communist-ruled and part of the Soviet Eastern Bloc. It was a country that prided itself on self-reliance and ran on a “planned economy” with its own state-controlled production and distribution. East Germans drove locally made Trabant cars, sported GDR-produced Zeha sneakers (the official shoe of East German Olympians), and dined on GDR foods such as Spreewald pickles; Filinchen, a type of thin waffle bread; and produce like carrots and onions, grown in collective farms statewide. But while weißkraut (white cabbage) could be easily found in state-run consumer co-ops statewide on a regular basis, items like lettuce, tomatoes, and butter were a bonafide crapshoot at times, and some foods, like bananas, were nowhere at all to be found.
Thankfully, there was one culinary delight that East Germans could depend on: television chef Kurt Drummer. The GDR’s own celebrity chef was not your run-of-the-mill government-controlled puppet. Drummer learned to cook prior to World War II in the kitchen of the elegant Hotel Chemnitzer Hof in Saxony, Germany, and ran a couple of hotel kitchens before taking on the role of head chef of the GDR’s top cooking show, Der Fernsehkoch empfiehlt (“The TV Chef Recommends”). From 1958 to 1983, Drummer presented 650 shows and created more than 2,000 dishes. East German housewives especially appreciated his ability to turn the same subpar ingredients they found at their local grocery stores into easy-to-follow recipes, and they found his culinary prowess refreshing. What’s more, Drummer was a trained nutritionist who could create dishes that were both low-fat and healthy and tasted good as well.
Standing in a kitchen dressed in his traditional chef’s whites, including a toque blanche, neckerchief, and executive chef coat, the stoutly built Drummer painted a picture of professionalism while offering up practical advice. He might be whipping up a serving of Grandmother’s Roast Beef with a side of bread dumplings or boiling a European lobster from the GDR-friendly Black Sea (East Germany welcomed cuisine from other Eastern Bloc countries) to perfection, but he also taught viewers how to make brisolettes (“fried meatballs”) by rolling whatever meat, poultry, or shellfish was available at the time in breadcrumbs and frying them up in hot fat. He also presented the popular Soviet national dish (and a favorite of current German Chancellor Angela Merkel), solyanka, using regular GDR ingredients like onions, meat, and pickle broth to create the rich, spicy soup.
Shortages of ingredients like cream and chocolate were periodic occurrences throughout the years. When fresh butter disappeared from East Germany’s co-op shelves, Drummer substituted margarine in everything from brown bread to braised ribs. If there was an overload of eggs, he made certain to present egg-heavy recipes for Weimar onion cake, Thuringian bacon cake (a kind of pancake made with bread dough, bacon, onions, and caraway seeds), and a cheese-heavy egg ragout. Drummer even had a recipe for broiler, or “fried chicken,” utilizing parts from the GDR’s own factory-produced chickens. He then marinated them in lemon juice, onion, and parsley before frying them up in a mix of apple juice, peppers, and paprika, and serving it all with a side sauce of sour milk, grated apple, and flour.
While East Germany’s beloved TV chef wasn’t immune to his government’s efforts to move specific products and control what residents bought, he dealt with these limitations in ways that were sensible and deliberate. His philosophy was, “This is what’s on the shelves. How do we make it edible?” He’d often read letters on air that had been written to him by young housewives, some who felt inferior to their mothers-in-law in the kitchen, and taught them how to tackle their fears of, say, perfecting beef brisket. It’s little wonder East German women just starting families loved him.
“The TV Chef Recommends” ran on GDR television sets every other Saturday for 25 years. Over that time, it went from black-and-white to color, switched between half-hour-long afternoon and evening slots, and upgraded its kitchen when it changed production locations toward the end of the 1960s. While the availability of ingredients waxed and waned, Drummer handled it all with aplomb. After all, he was the king of doing more with less.
Still, hunting down ingredients, which he was contracted to do, took its toll. Citing health ailments derived from all the “unknowingness,” he walked away from the show in 1983. He left a long legacy. Episodes of his show can be found on YouTube with English subtitles, and plenty of his recipes are available online. But more than that, Drummer stands as inspiration that whatever the situation, we can always make things work.
For my own Drummer-inspired experiment, I decided to follow his recipe for Bread Soup with Apples and Plums. Other than brown bread (I used rye) and the aforementioned fruits, all it called for was a little sugar, lemon, and clove, along with water, wine, and salt for cooking. As an added bonus, you could even serve it up with pieces of apples sautéed in butter—that is, if you could find butter on the shelves. Talk about decadence! But the thing is, when I did find that butter in the midst of our pandemic food crisis, I felt as though I’d hit the supermarket jackpot. With what now seemed like a touch of extravagance, my simple (though surprisingly hearty) soup turned from what might have been a basic meal into something rather special. I’d ask, “Who knew?” But I already know the answer, and it’s Kurt Drummer.