Wittenwiler’s Wedding Feast VI: Kraut

Another part from Der Ring: A course of greens served with bacon and consumed with no manners at all.

Coveted meatiness; Grieben courtesy of wikimedia commons

Now the cabbage (chraut) was ready, covered in bacon (speck) and fried lardons (greuben). It was served together with fish. The servants behaved in a courtly fashion, holding the bowls in front of their bellies, resting their fingers some on them, some in them, some spilling half, and serving the food to the guests as though strewing grass to a calf in the manger or anywhere. The gentlemen thanked them for it. Lastersak (lit. sack of vices) was very hungry. He looked around like a bull and called for a spoon. The others shouted “one for us, too!”. Some found spoons, others did not. They took their hands for ladles and ate as mannerly as the others.

Behold, such a brawl arose around the cabbage (chraut) and the sauce that you have never seen such chasing and rushing in our lifetime. You could see more than ten spoons stab like spears into each bowl. They especially sought out the lardons, going after them with their oars. Then Twerg (lit. Dwarf) at one point threw so much bacon into his mouth that his beard was suddenly all dripping with fat (smaltzich). Count Purkhardt did damage to all: He held a hand full of cabbage and moved it towards his mouth, calling to God for the weather to remain fine until the harvest was brought in. But how Chnotz took his revenge: He stirred about the bowl until his spoon broke. So he went in with both hands and grabbed cabbage on both sides, a big handful of food. “Be it fair weather or foul” he said at that point, “You must go into my gullet!”

Geri picked up the bowl and took a mighty gulp. She said “God grant you die of stench! (müesst derstinken). You have eaten (frass) it up, so I shall drink it!” and sat down again so that a great part of splashed out again. Oh, how she coughed! The others came to her rightaway and drank it up – I don’t know how – so that the tablecloth stayed dry. But what else there was, leaves, grass, breadcrumbs, crusts and bones, they left lying everywhere. Some also lingered in a courtly manner, bent over their bowls so their path was short, for their loads were heavy. And they had yet another reason for doing so: Should anything fall off their spoons or out of their mouths, it would fall right back into the bowl. Their mouths (mäuler) were wide open the entire time. Then they also did this: Whenever their fingers became wet, they waved them about over the cabbage quite deftly and wiped the remainder off on their boots and their garments. They had to do this because they had no napkins (hanttuoch) before them. They they immediately reached out again. They were also pleased by another thing: Whenever a diner dropped something to the ground, be it chewed or not, it had to be picked up and placed before all of them again, except if it had landed on his clothes. Then he was free to keep the morsels as he pleased.

There isn’t really very much novel to say here. The manners on display, the greed and vulgarity, are meant to amuse a more refined readership, but they are very unlikely to be anything like a real peasant banquet. An illustrative point, especially in contrast with the fish course, is how abundant the chraut is. It’s a lower-class dish, a catchall term that can refer to any leafy greens, but usually means cabbage. This would likely have been available in quantity, elevated to a festive status with copious amounts of meat. Grieben, fried lardons or cracklings, are mentioned specifically. These are mentioned quite frequently as toppings for various vegetable dishes, a quick and attractive way to enrich them on meat days. Clearly, the meat is the desirable part, the things that people fight over, and though the behaviour is unlikely to have been common, the sense of their value is probably accurate. People craved meat and fat.

At the end of this section, diners are described wiping greasy hands on their clothes and boots in the absence of napkins. This could be simple calumny, another disgusting thing we imagine peasants doing, but there may be more to it. Leather shoes needed regular greasing to stay waterproof. A small bowl of fat would be provided in any household to do so, and the German saying ins Fettnäpfchen treten for a faux pas originates from the consequences of accidentally upending one. The fat used for this was unschlitt, considered unfit for human consumption, not food-grade schmalz. However, in a society where fat was scarce and coveted, reserving some of it for technical purposes must have been contentious and the boundary between technical and culinary fats more blurry than our sources generally like to admit. transgressing it may hint at a broader taboo.

Heinrich Wittenwiler‘s massive poem ‚Der Ring‘ (the ring) is a somewhat puzzling piece of literature. Most likely produced in Constance around 1408-10, it tells a complex story of love, adventure, and deceit set in a peasant environment exploited for comedy value, but seems to have a genuine didactic purpose, though one often enough achieved by satirically describing the very opposite of desired conduct. In this, it resembles later Grobianic literature. I will limit myself to translating the parts that are relevant to food and table manners, but would advise anyone with enough command of German to read it in its entirety.

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