By Benjamin Lytal
Every Monday this winter, anti-immigrant rallies have been attracting thousands in Dresden and smaller crowds here in Berlin. Maybe it’s some imprecise feeling of solidarity that’s sent me to Öz-Gida, a Turkish supermarket on Hauptstrasse.
I see dried eggplants, in a tall plastic bag like we would use for corn chips. Dried red bell peppers like frail pink scrunchies. But the dried okra: that I have seen before, most likely at HarvesTime. In many ways this market, with its exotic variety of foods, reminds me of my favorite grocery stores in Chicago.
Indeed maybe my coming here has less to do with the protests than with the fact that they have some good sour yogurt. In Lincoln Square I always served Zdan Middle Eastern yogurt when out-of-towners stayed over for breakfast: I remember how one friend in town for a job interview grimaced when she first tried it.
Why do I remember that?
Because being a newcomer you expect to be tested. I moved to Chicago in 2011, and after just a few months I thought I had mastered Gene’s Sausage in Lincoln Square and HarvesTime on Lawrence. One time I was walking down Lawrence Avenue with perhaps eight mesh grocery bags full of bulgur and baklava and Mexican lard hanging from my shoulders when suddenly a chorus of whistles and catcalls came from a car parked at the light. It was a minivan full of suburban boys. I looked down at myself, saw my bright running shorts, my relatively hairless legs, thought of my dirty, fluffy hair and all these bags. But oh, my preppy local dickheads, can you fathom what a molé this dork-faggot-bag-lady is going to make for his wife?
Mastering the international can seem like a way to outflank the local. At my most petty, as a newcomer from New York, my avid search for international groceries felt like a refusal to commit to vernacular Chicago, to hotdogs, to deep dish.
The protesters in Dresden (who in photos seem to be universally male and white) like to chant “Wir sind das Volk”—”We are the people,” co-opting the people-power slogan that helped undermine the Berlin Wall in 1989. Repurposed for anti-immigrant demos, “das Volk” has returned to the invidious connotations it carried in the 1930s. In Chicago, for all our failures on immigration and on race, it’s hard to imagine a similarly stable monolithic front of nativism—Irish? African American? Potawatomi? I think my petty idea of a white-bread Chicago cuisine I could reject was, although more anodyne, just as self-serving as the protester’s idea of a unitary “Volk.” It was a prop to my resentments and insecurities—not as a reactionary native, but as a worldly newcomer.
And it was only a series of even worldlier friends, correspondents abroad and people in town for conferences and the like, who helped me see that Chicago was more porous than provincial. More sponge than wiener. A friend who grew up in Berlin came along to Gene’s Sausage after I had been shopping there for more than a year and showed me things I had never noticed (fresh-grated horseradish, which paired with a particularly sticky kind of snack sausage). A third-generation Swede heard about Andersonville and directed me to try Potatiskorv: pig intestine stuffed with mashed potato. Transplants from Boston drove us out to Calumet Fisheries. I was idly complaining to a friend with a Russian boyfriend about some bread called Borodinsky Rye I had randomly bought—puzzled by its strange sweetness, I had looked and rolled my eyes to see it contained molasses—when she popped back with an email recommending a preparation. Toast it: a no-brainer I suppose, but learning to love what’s right under your nose often takes forceful intervention, a pointer, aid from unexpected quarters.
There are what I might once have dubbed “Chicago Foods” on sale at the mainstream German markets: I’ve seen pre-cooked hamburgers with their buns already on them, “American muffins” in stars ‘n’ stripes packaging, something called “Golden Toast” that is basically sliced white bread. Hotdog buns come, actually, with the Statue of Liberty on the bag. Last night I bought pulled pork in a box, advertised as from “the cuisine of the Southern states of the US,” which in German is naturally one word: “US-Südstaatenküche.” The pork was gummy and flavored like Salsalito turkey.
All that seems like the inevitable stupidity of transatlantic mimicry. Except, conversely, I could get herrings in cream at Gene’s in Chicago superior to anything I’ve found in Europe. Today it’s not the cheapo German hotdog buns that remind me of Chicago—it’s more broadly the eclecticism of the Öz-Gida Turkish supermarket: it’s the dried eggplant, a product I’ve never seen before, that puts me back in the aisles of HarvesTime on Lawrence Avenue.