In Berlin, They Call Berliners Pancakes
March 2, 2012
Well, it’s edible, says my grandfather, as he pops a hot beignet into his mouth and then quickly shakes the heat of it from his fingers. This means that it is actually very good. My grandfather is Schwabisch, where the phrase nichts g’sagt ist Lob g’nug, meaning nothing said is praise enough, is, in fact, nearly the highest form of praise. As far as I can tell, the most generous expression of delight is: Man kann’s essen, which means, you can eat it.
My brother and my grandfather and I are standing in the kitchen, deep-frying Fasnet’s cakes, the south-German name for beignets. We’ve developed an assembly-line of sorts – I’m rolling out dough and cutting it into diamonds, my grandfather is manning the deep-fryer, and my brother is dusting the cakes, blistering with hot oil, in powdered sugar. We’ve developed an unhurried camaraderie, mock-criticizing each others’ methods, telling old jokes, jostling against each other with batches of dough, making faces, taking pictures. The kitchen is warm and smells sweet.
This picture freezes in my mind. My grandfather grins at me in a half-laugh and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, Well, what do you think about that?
His eyes are wrinkled into crescents, his eyebrows lifted like a mischievous child’s as he swings a bottle of Oettinger Pils up to his mouth. And then his back is to me as he flips the Fasnet cakes in the deep-fryer. My brother catches the hot cakes on a plate of sugar and the powdered sugar he dusts onto them melts.
Fasnet (aka Fasnacht, aka Carnival) is mainly celebrated in the southern, Catholic parts of Germany. In Berlin, there were a handful of people who looked at me with confusion. They’d never heard of it.
In Burladingen, however, people belong to Fasnet clubs (called Vereins) which supposedly exist solely to march in the parades and plan parties during the two weeks or so that Fasnet is celebrated. However, upon further inquiry, it turns out that the clubs meet at least once a month or so throughout the year to talk about next year’s plans, or reminisce about the last year’s Fasnet, or drink beer.
Each club has a traditional costume which members spend vast sums to purchase and which they are only allowed to wear during the parades. In the weeks ambling up to Fat Tuesday, a loose affiliation of neighboring towns hosts these parades, sometimes a parade a day, especially as the specter of Lent looms nearer. The costumes are elaborate, hand-sewn with hand-carved masks of wood, specially suited to each individual’s face. When you join a Verein, you’re in for life. I guess this means people don’t move from town to town very often, I tell my cousin. She looks at me with mock horror, Don’t even suggest it!
Hidden behind their masks, the paraders dive into the bystanders. Witches with apple-red cheeks and stringy black hair made from horse tails hurl themselves at attractive young women and bind their feet together with those plastic ties that get tighter as you squirm and can only be removed with a pair of scissors. They fling the girls over their shoulders and run a good portion of the parade route with them before letting them go. We later learned that most of the witches are actually teenage boys, the girls they “kidnap,” their classmates, and the Fasnet parade a coy ritual of flirtation.
Marching bands playing purposefully off-key trumpet down the street. The cats from Gammerdingen hop and the bells across their chests jingle in beat. A rogue bear grabs a bystander by the foot and won’t let go. A tree grabs my aunt and kisses her.
Every time a new group walks past, they shout Nari! to us and we answer back, Naro! The snow, which had fallen that morning, is still piled along the sidewalks. The witches flick it at us with their brooms.
My grandfather doesn’t go to the parades anymore. While we stand out in the cold, watching the devilment unfold, he works in the church. He is home by the time we come back, shivering and laughing, candy in our pockets. Most of my family has come down for the parade, and so we set up the living room table for coffee. People have brought cakes, my brother and I place our beignets from the night before on the table.
So you made the cakes after all, my aunt says as she slips a beignet from the stack. When did you have time?
Last night, I say, after you left.
Last night! She exclaims, and my brother and grandfather and I laugh. Because we’re remembering how we’d said goodnight to my aunt and an uncle late at night after an evening spent cooking pizza together, watching a few rounds of ice crushing, and learning to knit. We were tired and full and ready for bed. But the dough we’d made earlier in the day and forgotten about was still sitting out on the counter. These have to be made tonight, my grandfather said as he tried to send my brother and I to bed. To bed! We laughed – We’d never let you stay up to make these all yourself.
So we three stayed up, cracked open another round of Oettigners, and set to work rolling out dough, heating up oil, dusting with sugar.