The Cult of the warmes Mittagessen

I feel like mothers are enslaved here in these provincial parts of southern Germany by what I call the “cult of the warmes Mittagessen” or the cult of the hot lunch. (I’m not even going to try to stretch the truth by saying parents instead of mothers. It’s pretty traditional here, and I don’t think fathers are feeling the same pressure that I’m talking about. If you think I’m wrong, I would love to hear more.) Just in case you don’t know, lunch is the main meal in Germany. Walk through the residential neighborhoods of where I live at noon time, and you’ll detect from several directions that alluring smell of onions sauteing in melted butter, the base to any proper Swabian meal. Expectations are high and this includes having a hot meal ready and waiting for whenever the kiddies come home from school and Kindergarten from noon onwards. Even if a working mother starts her working day at 7:30, trying to have the cheese hot and bubbling on the top of home-made Kaesespaetzle for noon might seem like a heroic effort. As a fellow American mother said to me once, “What’s wrong with a sandwich?”

There are of course things that will help you, and I don’t just mean an oven that you can program. Your child’s town or city might have an all day school or an all day class (Ganztageschule). These seem to be more common in the north of Germany, but they are increasing in number here too. The jury is out on how good the quality of these are. You probably, for instance, will still want to look over your child’s homework even if your child has Hausaufgabenbetreuung (homework help). A warm lunch though is part of the deal. Otherwise, your school should have some sort of extended after school care where you literally buy an extra hour or two. You still have to have that warm lunch ready, but at least you have a couple more hours till you have to get that darn casserole into the oven.

As an Asian, I would in fact be glad to have three hot meals a day. (As a pictoral reference, check out this infogram that a Chinese artist who moved to Germany as a teenager designed to depict the differences between Chinese and German cultures. I’m talking about those three steaming rice bowls!) But as an American, I have often felt squeezed by this “cult of the warmes Mittagessen.” Before my kids were old enough to eat more than baby and finger foods, dinner remained our main meal in my house. That meant I only had to cook once. Once my kids got older though and were institutionalized German-style, the pressure mounted to have a warm lunch as well as a hot dinner, meaning two hot meals. (Luckily, our Kindergarten has always had lunch delivered, and I’ve only had to start flapping my Rabenmutter wings around the kitchen some more as my oldest child started school.) I thought about trading off the hot dinner for the hot lunch, but to me, that would seem like a deprived life. My kids and husband emphatically agree.

And speaking of my husband, while it might have been nice to have seen my husband as much as possible during those initial years of marriage, I should have been more grateful that he didn’t come home for lunch: I tittered when I first moved here and heard of a friend picking to live in a house close to her husband’s place of work so that he would be able to come home for lunch every day. That possibility couldn’t horrify this accidental housewife more.

The first time I heard about Germany’s main meal was when I learned about its cold dinner about ten years ago. I had been sharing a flat in London with my half German-half American friend who invited me to his family’s home in a village outside of Kiel during the Easter holidays. We had driven all the way from London, catching the ferry across the channel, driving through Benelux and the Rhineland, to reach our final destination eager and ready for dinner. It was with a certain amount of disappointment as I learned from my friend’s American mother that their big meal was lunch. In other words, that meal I was craving had already been eaten or I had to just wait for tomorrow! She had the table set for “bread” instead. I had no idea what was in store for me next: groaning platters of cold meats and blocks of creamy cheese, little bowls of pickles, and even a hot bowl of soup. I was surprisingly satisfied. As I was inadvertently introduced to Germany’s cult of the hot lunch, I was in fact first introduced to its cult of bread.

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