I ended my time in France with an excellent restaurant, and so I decided that a good way to end my stay in Berlin (my last “full” weeklong stop on the trip) would also be to eat a great traditional German meal. I asked the free tour guide if he recommended anything, and without thinking twice about it, he told me to go to a place called Max und Moritz.
Max and Moritz, I learned while Googling for the address of the place, are two famous cartoon characters who have quite a history of their own. “Max und Moritz – Eine Bubengeschichte in sieben Streichen” is the title of an old, old German folktale, so old that it has now fallen into the public domain. Parents read it to their children, who read it to their children, who read it to their children a few more times over the years. They’re like Paul Bunyan is in America — nobody really knows where the tale came from, but everyone knows who they are.
Well maybe not quite like Paul Bunyan — Max and Moritz was originally written as a children’s book by a guy named Wilhelm Busch in 1865. He also illustrated it, and both the poem included and the illustrations are quite famous. As you might expect from a German tale, it’s actually quite grim to our modern sensibilities, but of course over here, it’s all in good fun, like the gingerbread lady throwing those kids into her oven.
Max and Moritz are two mischievous kids with distinctive haircuts, who specialize in tormenting the people of a small German town in various creative ways. They pull off a series of seven tricks, which get more and more complicated — first, they tie some ropes to chicken food, and when the chicken eat it, they get all caught up together and killed. The widow whose chickens they were is saddened by this, but she cooks the dead chickens, which are then stolen by fishing down a chimney by Max and Moritz, and the widow’s dog is blamed for the theft.
I started my self-chosen three course dinner at Max und Moritz (the restaurant, not the mischievous kids) with some old German potato soup, complete with both sausage and bacon, and some incredibly tasty bread. I decided that I had given German bread a little too short shrift — it is really good, and it’s only because I had just come from France when I ate most of it that I didn’t really get into it. But their ryes and darker breads are just amazing, and the herbed butter that came with it didn’t hurt that at all.
Given all of the beer I’d had the day before, I really didn’t want to drink beer again — I would rather have had soda. But (and this is probably the thing that’s given me the most issue here in Europe), while soda and water flow freely in the US, Europe for some reason does it all differently. When you buy soda, you get a little bottle, and that’s it. When you order water, it’s bottled only, and that’s all you get. So when I looked at the menu, saw a tiny little bottle of soda for 4 euros, and a huge beer of the day for 3 euros, how could I not order beer? I got the house beer, which was a tasty weiss beer, but honestly, I would rather have had a few glasses of diet coke.
After tormenting the widow, Max and Moritz then turn to the rest of the town’s citizens. To the tailor, they saw cuts in a bridge near his house, and then goad him onto walking on and breaking it, causing him to almost drown. The teacher’s pipe is lit with gunpowder, and it explodes in his face. They put bugs in Uncle Fritz’ bed.
The baker almost catches them — they sneak into his place to steal some bread, but instead, he grabs them and sticks them in the dough, then bakes them in the oven. Max and Moritz escape, however, by eating their way out of the dough.
The main course of the meal was called Konigsburger Klopse, which were German braised meatballs and potatoes in a caper sauce with a side salad. The salad was very interesting — most of the stuff in there was all briny, like sauerkraut. Even the lettuce and tomatoes were brined up a little bit, it seemed. I liked it, but it was very different from a fresh American salad — much more sour. The meatballs were, of course, terrific. The potatoes were boiled, in good German style, and were probably the best part of the meal.
Eventually, given all of the trouble that Max and Moritz are causing, they of course get in trouble of their own. The seventh trick they pull is to cut some slits in grain sacks, so that when they’re carried away, the grain all spills out. But the miller catches them at the prank, and he instead stuffs them in the grain sacks and carries them off to be sold. Max and Moritz are ground up into feed, just punishment for all of their pranks, as far as the townspeople are concerned. And then, in one last indignity, they’re eaten by ducks. The original book shows the grain laid out in the shape of Max and Moritz, being eaten by a couple of very strange-looking ducks.
My last course was dessert. I couldn’t pass up some old fashioned “apfel strudel,” given that I’ve had a lot of really terrible knockoff American strudel over the years.
And when it appeared, it was of course amazing — the creme that was poured over it was basically a very smooth icing, and was incredibly good. At this point, even I was thinking I’d eaten a little much, so I chose not to scoop the creme up with a spoon after I’d finished. But I really wanted to.
As I walked through Berlin back to my hostel room there for the last time, I thought about what folktales like Max and Moritz mean to those who tell and hear them. Obviously, there’s a little morality tale there — kids probably enjoy the pranks as they hear them, but of course at the end, they’re supposed to be scared off by Max and Moritz’ final fate. And of course there’s benefits to reading comprehension as well — Max and Moritz rhymes and it’s easy to read to kids, but it’s also easy for them to start reading themselves once they know the story, and there’s enough variety that they can learn all kinds of important words for a country environment.
Even more than that, stories like this create unity in a people. They create nostalgia, because everyone remembers being told it as a kid, and the sequential nature and the clear identity of the characters and situations makes it easy to remember. It’s also very archetypal, the mischievous pranksters, and so the imagery can be inserted into all sorts of situations. Max and Moritz have existed in all kinds of media around Germany for many years — there are even YouTube videos of a fake Max and Moritz Reloaded trailer, which riffs on the kids’ tale in an adult way.
But most of all, I think, it’s a point of reference for German people who grew up with the story as a kid. It’s home. And the Max und Moritz restaurant certainly felt like home — there were big families at big tables all around me, and lots of little Max and Moritz tchotkes lined the walls, all echoing that feeling that you’re home, you’re safe, you’re in a place where there’s a story that you know and love, where things happen the way you’ve always known them, always remembered them.
I thought about all of this on my walk back to the hostel. And when I got back there, I didn’t go back down to the bar and have a beer, or do any partying. I curled up in bed, just relaxed and read a little bit, and thought about home.
Tomorrow, I take a train to Prague, for a mini-trip of just a few days. And then on Tuesday, I’ll fly back, and I’ll return, finally, to the good old U.S. of A.
Posted on Sunday, April 29th, 2012 at 3:10 am. Filed under general.