I am an NPR junkie. I’ve always liked Car Talk and the occasional All Things Considered, but my addiction started in earnest when Max was a toddler and Claire was an infant. I soon discovered the only way to guarantee a shared napping period was a car ride. Gas prices were high then, but sometimes it was just necessary for my mental health.
Since this was before the era of iPhones, mobile apps and Facebook, the struggle became what to do once they were finally asleep. Removing them from the car was likely to wake one or both of them and would defeat the point of all those extra miles. Mostly I sat in the front seat wasting obscene amounts of gas to heat or air condition the back seat as the seasons dictated. Sometimes I read, but that was apt to put me to sleep too. That didn’t seem safe. It was at about that point that I discovered the local NPR station. Something about the voice of host Neal Conan soothed the sleeping babes, who thankfully seemed to go back to sleep if they woke during his broadcast. The topics were eclectic and interesting, and the show was the most welcome diversion from diapers, spit up and more diapers, which, when you have two under 2, is the majority of your world.
Fast forward a few years and I have discovered the power of the podcast. I can listen to the same NPR shows I love while I do the dishes or fold the laundry. It’s a good deal. I listen mostly to keep informed and be entertained during those chores. Every once in a while it yields some practical information. This was the case a few months ago when I was listening to the podcast of the radio show “Travel with Rick Steves.” Since our yearly travel budget is much closer to the three-figure than the five-figure range and since tents and yurts regularly figure into it, I have had to forgo yearly jaunts to London and Paris (France that is, I do plan to make it to Paris, Arkansas this year), and have settled for the next best thing: armchair travel to both of those places and more. Rick does this well. Occasionally he even gives a nod to the other listeners like me who are more frequent daydreamers than flyers.
On one show like this he spotlighted a mom from Oklahoma who had started a food blog called Global Table Adventure aimed at encouraging her family members to try new flavors and types of cuisine in their own dining room. Her reasons for beginning the blog/project included wanting to keep her cooking out of a rut and prevent her daughter from developing what she described as Picky Eater Syndrome as well as create more cultural awareness. “195 meals. 195 countries. 195 weeks.” It sounded brilliant.
I immediately thought I should try to replicate that at my house. It seemed even more important for a family living with food allergy. Exposing kids to new cuisines had to happen at home. Although we have some great ethnic restaurants, they are daunting to manage with Max. The language barrier often gets in the way. Plus, ethnic restaurants are often more reluctant to divulge secret ingredients or any ingredients. If I needed any more encouragement to replicate the project, our Kroger had just added a fairly comprehensive ethnic food aisle. I wouldn’t have to import pickled herring from Sweden. They had three brands. The food all has labels mostly in English or at the least translatable into English.
Still, thinking about it and picking a country getting organized and making it happen are two different tasks. I heard the show and first got inspired in late winter. I finally told myself when summer came we would make it a priority. The kids’ summer vacation is almost over now (12 days but who is counting?), but the start of the Olympics reminded me of this project.
Finally, we decided to go for it. I decided to begin with Germany because I’d been thinking about it since my pretzel post a few weeks back. We immediately encountered some hiccups. First, I knew I wanted to make a sauerbraten. Since I didn’t want to spend all day looking for an authentic recipe, I went to my favorite television food star, Alton Brown, who is as authentic as t.v. food stars get. To my surprise, I already had most of the ingredients: rump roast, bay leaves, even dairy-free ginger snaps. The only thing missing were the juniper berries. Having waited this long to get this project underway I figured what is one extra trip to the store. I scoured spice racks at one grocery store and then another, but finding juniper berries proved trickier than I expected. Eventually, I complained to Jason, who pointed out the obvious easy substitution: gin. Since Jason likes a gin and tonic now and then, he was more than happy to make an extra run to the liquor store. Finally, with a new bottle of gin, some German beer for good measure, and with all the ingredients on hand, I was ready to cook.
It was noon. Dinner was set to be at around 6. I was feeling good about my early start until I re-read the recipe. Although I have had sauerbraten before and knew that marinating was an important step, I somehow glossed over the fact that the recipe I found required three to four *days* of marinating instead of the usual three to four hours. Guess there was no need to preheat the oven after all, as we were not eating this meat tonight, but that wasn’t the only element I hadn’t thought through. If you are also wondering why Germany in the middle of July, then you are again one step ahead of me. Yes, German makes more sense for October, the month of most German food and beer festivals. I quickly discovered why it’s suited to October as I realized I would need to run the oven for four hours on the hottest day of the summer (107 degrees with a heat index of 105 — it was in fact a dryer heat than usual but still) to follow the directions. I decided to adapt the recipe to the crock pot instead.
And despite all the fits and starts and adjustments, it turned out terrific: sweet and sour just like sauerbraten should be. I fried up some latkes with the potato pancake mix I stumbled upon in the spice aisle while looking for the juniper berries. I warmed up an imported red cabbage slaw from the European subdivision of the international food section. We also had giant pretzels. I wanted to have at least one item on the plates I thought would generate excitement and be somewhat familiar for the kids.
When I researched German customs on a few food sites, I discovered my menu was more typical of an American restaurant trying to recreate German cooking than anything a self-respecting German would eat at home. I did feel a little bad about that. In a way, though, that’s what I was going for here. We played some German polka music and discussed some facts about the country, which I am sure only upped the kitsch factor. It wasn’t really a trip around the globe, but hopefully we did manage to open the window on the world a little wider. It was a long way from the days of car rides, diapers and drool.