My first job here in Germany was in a publishing house (Verlag) in Freiburg, and that job was actually my first real job after college. It was certainly a different way to be indoctrinated into the world of work. It was the early nineties and it was the Schwarzwald. Freiburg is still a pretty hip town, but in small companies like the one I started in, they stick to tradition. Almost everyone was per Sie with one another, despite the fact that many of them had been working together for years. After a year of having two Americans and one Canadian in their midst, they loosened up a bit and we were almost all per Du.
Birthdays at work, depending on the company, usually involve the person whose birthday it is bringing in something to eat. At my current company, it might just be Sekt and Brezeln for my small department. At my husband’s company, some people bring in three-course elaborate meals for the whole group, which is 40 people. This year I made American cakes and cupcakes for the whole lot. They were a happy bunch after the sugar rush!
Birthdays in my old company were a big deal. There were maybe twenty employees. I was in my early twenties, as were a few others. But most were well beyond thirty and forty. The funny, happy outgoing guy in Sales was called Helmut. Helmut had a thing for those big piles of raw hamburger with onions – called Mett or Tatar.
Tatar or Schabefleisch is ground beef that is of high quality without sinews and tendons. It is low in fat and comes from the muscle – cuts such as filet. It is ground very finely. Hackepeter or Thüringer Mett, on the other hand, is made from high quality, raw pork that is also low in fat. Both products are seasoned, often with onions and raw egg yolk. Sometimes they are served with capers. They are meant to be eaten raw and or usually served with fresh bread rolls or toast.
Helmut (and other birthday celebrants) would come in with a huge platter of what looked like raw hamburger to the Americans. Everyone would get very excited, “What a delicacy!” Out came the Sekt. But we were good sports and actually tried it. It does taste good if you get over the thought of eating raw meat. I mean, I guess we are all eating sushi nowadays.
The other popular birthday dish in Freiburg was Fleischkäse. To me, it really looked and tasted like cooked bologna. And that is sort of what it is: “Leberkäse (German, literally means ‘liver cheese’; sometimes spelled Leberkäs or Leberka(a)s in Austria and the Swabian, Bavarian and Franconian parts of Germany and Fleischkäse in Saarland, Baden, Switzerland and Tyrol) is a specialty food found in the south of Germany, Austria, and parts of Switzerland, similar to bologna sausage. It consists of corned beef, beef, bacon, and onions and is made by grinding the ingredients very finely and then baking it as a loaf in a bread pan until it has a crunchy brown crust.”
In Freiburg it was served on a roll with mustard. Again, it tasted good, but it wouldn’t have been something to get excited about! When it was my turn, I brought in chili, in my attempt to be American. Another colleague brought in burgers, hot dogs, buns and relish. We giggled later when everyone asked for forks and knives.
When your birthday rolls around, get creative! But don’t forget the Sekt!