DISCOVERING FAST FOOD

The author’s first American style 
fast food order, took a long time…

***

From the day when the Americans landed in Sicily, the USdollar was worth having. Any one (male or female) who lived then in Palermo can attest to it.

DISCOVERING FAST FOOD…
…discovering the American style
At the more than thousand years old Faehrhaus, in northern Germany, where I worked in the 60s and early 1970s we got our share of international tourists. We also got our share of soldiers from the occupying forces. Neither the French nor the British troops had much money to spend. However, the American currency was strong. The American money had been most welcome in all of Europe since the end of the war. From the day when the Americans landed in Sicily, the USdollar was worth having. Any one (male or female) who lived then in Palermo can attest to it.
Twenty years later the US-dollar was still holding its value. The exchange rate was then four Deutsche Marks to the US$. The French Franc was not worth much. We accepted the English Pound, which was a so-called leading currency, however it was not much wanted, at least in Germany. The kitchen at the Faehrhaus offered a wide selection of regional and international specialties. There was a double page with German food. Two additional menu pages listed specialties from other countries. The wine list was a leather bound volume. It offered a glimpse at the treasures hidden from the eye in an underground brick cellar with many small storage rooms, narrow caverns, niches and archways.
This day I felt lucky. I had been waiting on two famous Americans at an earlier table. One of them was Bob Hope. Now I had another table of four Americans and they did not use Zippos to light their cigarettes. One spoke fluent German, the others attempted to use a few bits and pieces of German. I got their drinks from the bar and made sure that I brought them the Whiskey from Kentucky spelled “ey” at the end and not the Whisky from Scotland, the one without the “e”.
They surprised me with their wish to try the Hamburger Hackfleisch as listed on the menu. I repeated the order, in school English, unsuccessfully trying to pronounce the “th” right. I was somewhat disappointed as I had hoped to sell to these wealthy travelers Caspian caviar, Chateaubriand and crepe Suzette. Then one of the guests asked me to cook his Hamburger Hackfleisch rare and the others wanted theirs medium rare. I automatically answered with “Sir we can’t do this!”
I even gave them a lengthy explanation: The cooks make Hamburger Hackfleisch from chopped (hack) meat (fleisch). There are pork and beef in it, bread and fine chopped onions. They lightly spice it with salt and pepper. The Hackfleisch patties are fully cooked in a frying pan. Look at the menu! As you can see, with it we serve sautéed onions and a creamy tasty dark sauce, made from meat-stock.
Their answer was laughter. They, these Americans, acted like I had been telling them jokes. While holding his belly laughing one asked “What kinds of Hamburgers are these?” another said “That sounds like sausage ingredients!” and one mentioned “The kid doesn’t know what he is talking about.” I fully understood what they were saying. True I was young. Nevertheless, who were they to tell me, who had been to hotel-school here in Hamburg, that I was wrong when I named the ingredients of a typical local dish. I noticed I was nearing the point of over boiling. I barely kept it together.
Yet when the host – who was clad in a colorful purple, green, red and yellow shirt with checkered pants, fit for a circus clown – said to me in German: “Listen young man that’s not the way a Hamburger should be made!” I was getting really mad. Who was he to say, I am wrong? Without listening to one more word I turned around and disappeared from their sight into the waiter’s station to cool off. I was set to go to my room, to get my trusted cookbook and to show this foreigner the same. I knew, that I knew what ingredients my cookbook listed under Hamburger steak. I knew I was right and I knew this clown shouldn’t have called me a liar.
Max, an older waiter, who had traveled the world many times over, came to my rescue. He had listened to part of the conversation and he knew how I felt. “See, Helmut, you are right, no question about it. Still, listen. They are right too.” I stared at him with a questioning look on my face. I did not say it but thought, “What does he mean with both of us are right? Somebody has to be wrong and it isn’t I!”

Nevertheless, I respected Max enough to wait for his explanations. He was nearly sixty-five and had been teaching me much about the work as a waiter. He said: “Let’s say a boy is born here and the parents name him Michael. This boy will look like all the boys around here. Now let us say a boy is born in middle Africa and he is named Michael, he is still a boy, he is still Michael but most likely he looks different to our local boy!”
“So you are telling me they make a Hamburger which is different from ours in America?” I asked. I noticed on Max’s face that he was glad that I had gotten the drift. His words confirmed it: “The guests of yours were trying to tell you such. Stubborn you didn’t listen to them!”
Now I felt guilty and asked Max how to save the situation. He pointed me in the direction of the kitchen. “Go to the chef.” “Ja?” Ask him if he could make Hamburgers the American way.” “Ja!” “A good waiter doesn’t keep his customers waiting.”
I did as told and after the Chef de cuisine had stopped laughing he answered, “Of course, Amerikaner! Go ask them what temperature they want their meat cooked, medium, rare or whatever!” I felt small and out of place as I walked back to my table. I was not going to apologize to them, but said “I checked with the kitchen. Our chef is glad to prepare your dinner and what you call Hamburger any way you want it fixed!”
I took their order in great detail: Slightly buttered and toasted Burger buns, minced lean beef, mustard, ketchup, raw onion rings, pickle spears. And now, on top of it, each of them wanted it cooked somewhat differently from medium well to rare. I was not too so sure that our kitchen would be able to handle such a strange list of requests. However, the chef had said he could. Therefor this was not my problem. I placed the order in the kitchen, took care of the two other tables which I had neglected and done with these, the kitchen was calling.
I was amazed when I saw my first American-type-hamburger. They were served on plates and not on silver platters. The plates were garnished with butter lettuce, sliced tomatoes, pickles, cornichons and raw onion rings. Big soft buns, fresh from the bakery, sliced in the middle and golden toasted took up most of the space of the dinner plate. On the bread throned a small charred meat loaf. I tried to remember which was which, to me they all looked alike. I carried the four plates out to the table and went back to get the silver platter with the sauce boats with tomato ketchup, mustard and hot sauce. As I put these onto the table I wondered “How are they going to eat these foreign hamburgers?”
In disbelief I watched the men sandwiching the meat between the relish filled buns. They cut the bread once in the middle and picked it up. Holding their food with both hands, their teeth tore pieces out of it.
“Like savages!” I thought to myself as I rushed off to get them finger bowls, warm water and lemon juice garnished with a flower and towels. I brought each of my American guests one of these. And I heard the question directed at the table’s host “What’s this flower doing in my water?” Before I could explain, what a finger bowl is, I heard the host’s answer: “That’s to wash your hands, you idiot! Guess in Kansas you don’t have such?”
At the end of their meal, these men tipped me royally. And I took their compliments and a tray full of beer back to the kitchen. I told the chef “They said ‘these are the best darn burgers anywhere in Europe’ and they said thank you!”
I learned a lesson from these customers and was happy to see them again a year later. This time they didn’t come to sample Hamburgers but to celebrate the opening of the first American-type-fast-food-restaurant in Germany. They called it a family steak house. However, they placed it on a busy street-corner at the north-end of the Reeperbahn in St Pauli, a street also known as the “mile of sin,” a street where bumper to bumper traffic was common twenty-four hours a day and where the bars, clubs and striptease-joints never closed.

This first of all the American-fast-food-places in Germany served meat from Argentine and had waitresses in Las Vegas style short outfits waiting on the guest. The food’s quality was absolutely outstanding.
The young ladies called “Serviererin” (server) were cute. However, this was at a time when waiting on tables was still a male only profession. Somehow the restaurant did not attract the local families. Maybe due to the location, it was directly across from the Eros center, a legal bordello? Maybe it was the surrounding? Or maybe the potential guests’ wives felt offended by the short skirted servers? I liked eating there. But I also have to admit back then, waitresses were an unusual sight in German restaurants, at least in better restaurants. One found women in a Gasthaus, usually the wife or daughter of the owner and in the Konditorei (specialty coffee shops where fine baked goods and rich cakes were served). Women could also be found in all the nightclubs. Their job was to attract customers and to get the liquor sales up. They danced, stripped, enticed and coerced, but the actual waiting on tables was a man’s job.

I do not know what went wrong with Germany’s first American-fast-food-place. Maybe the waitresses’ appearance was much too much like the women found in the nearby bars and night clubs? I do not know! Maybe, the German public might not have been ready for the idea of half raw huge hamburgers on a bun. The business failed, the main investor from his losses after two years of operating in the red and returned to Los Angeles California.

It was only one year later, after this investor pulled out of Germany, that other fast-food franchises tried their luck. Less than ten years after the Steakhouse at the Reeperbahn closed, there were American franchised fast-food operations all over Germany. The pre-portioned and packaged food became fast a part of Germany’s everyday life. Today it is as much acceptable as the traditional Gasthaus and the Stammtisch.

The American hamburgers, however, these days look more like beef patties and are nowadays all served well done, just like they used to do with the Hamburger Hackfleisch.

by helmut schonwalder