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Forever Joined, Yet A Land Divided By Its Culture and Its Cookery
Only about 100 miles separate the crown jewel Alsatian city of Strasbourg and Lorraine’s classic capital, Nancy. Yet, over the years a strong allegiance to their chosen cultural history has separated friends and even families in this northeastern region of France. My family is one of those separated.
Waverley Root, in his monumental book, The Food of France, said “Alsace-Lorraine is a word whose two parts seem destined to remain tied together by their hyphen, but their conjunction is more or less an accident of history.” Both intermittently part of Germany or France since the Middle Ages, Alsace and Lorraine at times shared either French or German sovereignty; at others, Alsace was German territory and Lorraine, French.
My father Joseph was born in the now-French province of Alsace and as a youngster immigrated to the United States. I was familiar with his homeland through his many recollections and through books on Alsace he collected and I now treasure. One has a watercolor reproduction of his 17th Century, half-timbered family home in the Alsatian village of Obernai. When my father died I became the patriarch of the American branch of my family and had a strong urge to visit my roots. So, with my wife and daughter, I set out on a sentimental visit. At the time my father’s sister Anna lived in Strasbourg where I still have cousins. Other cousins lived then in nearby Lorraine just across the Vosge Mountains, and there were various nieces and nephews from both Alsace and Lorraine.
When my father came to the U. S. in 1912 as a youth both Alsace and Lorraine belonged to Germany, just to the East across the natural boundary of the Rhine River. My father, the son of an Alsatian baker, became a U.S. citizen, married and became a chef. He spent the rest of his long life in and around San Francisco with only two short visits to his Alsatian homeland. His older brother Leo immigrated to France and joined the army. Later, he married, had children and lived out his life in Lorraine. As my Germanic father would say later, “Leo became Frenchified.”
On my visit I found much more than the Vosge Mountains separating the Alsace and Lorraine branches of my family. Those relatives living in Alsace, while certainly French in loyalty and spirit, were culturally Germanic. They spoke French, of course, but they also frequently spoke German and a patois known as Alsacienne. The Lorraine family contingent was totally French in spirit, style and language. I found that much of this difference was expressed in the food they served at home. It was as different as…well, the French and German languages. So this is a personal tale of two family cuisines, if you will.
There are many fine restaurants in both Alsace and Lorraine; some with Michelin stars and international reputations. The food served is French haut cuisine although some Alsatian specialties are found as well. But family fare in Alsace and Lorraine remains closer to traditional dishes of each province and tends to differ sharply. Alsace is famed for its hybrid, German-style dishes such as choucroute garni (sauerkraut with potatoes, smoked pork, various sausages and even goose at times). The home cooking of Lorraine aligns more closely with traditional French country fare.
During the Alsatian days of this journey we enjoyed a memorable meal with my aunt Anna and cousin Freddy whose wife Ginette was our cook. This meal was a textbook example of Alsatian-style cookery. The lengthy, at-home luncheon consisted of an appetizer of pate de foie gras served with an Alsatian Gewurtztraminer This was followed by a huge platter of choucroute garni (sauerkraut, carrots, potatoes, smoked pork and several kinds of local sausage and was accompanied by frosted steins of German beer. Then followed two cheeses, a strong Munster and a soft and creamy St. Hubert which we ate with homemade, brown bread. Dessert was the traditional kugelhopf, a light golden, round cake baked in a form with a hole in its center. It was dusted with powdered sugar. There were also cookies, blueberry pie and homemade ice cream with framboise sauce. Not your typical light lunch.
We spent a week in Alsace, then asked my aunt to telephone ahead (approximately 100 miles) to my cousins in Lorraine to advise that the following morning we would be on our way for a visit that had been previously established by letter. My Alsatian aunt declined saying that the two branches of the family were “not close”---a personal example of how Alsace and Lorraine is a land divided. My daughter Laurel in her best schoolgirl French, made the call and the arrangements for our next family meeting.
And so we drove to Lorraine for a visit with my relatives who lived in Thorey Lyautey, a tiny village near Nancy.
The festive, early evening meal consisted of typical French country food: First we sipped some celebratory homemade eaux-de-vie Mirabelle made from the tiny yellow plums from my cousin Renee’s garden. The meal began with these appetizers: a homemade vegetable terrine, crackers with a thin slice of garden tomato, topped with a slice of hard-cooked egg and a dot of homemade mayonnaise, French bread and gherkins. With a nod toward the other side of the Vosge Mountains this was served with a glass of Alsatian Pinot Blanc. Then, followed a roast loin of pork (slightly pink) with a small pitcher of au jus. Haricots Jaune (yellow string beans) sautéed with bacon bits accompanied the roast. This was served with a modest Cote du Rhone. Next was a garden lettuce salad dressed with mustard vinaigrette. (No wine with the salad). Three cheeses followed: Camembert, St. Albert and Port Salud with the remaining wine; and again with French bread and a sweet butter. Finally, there were fresh white peaches and purple grapes from the garden. After dinner we sipped tiny glasses of eaux-de-vie Mirabelle. On parting, Renee’s husband Roger gave me some of his eaux-de-vie in a brown whiskey bottle, stopped with a cork. Later that night in our hotel room back in Nancy I sipped some of it before I went to sleep and left the glass on the nightstand by the bed. The next morning the room was perfumed with the scent of the golden plums.
Today, much of the world’s cuisine is homogenous. Let’s hope the traditional family cuisines of Alsace and Lorraine retain their individuality.
San Francisco writer Ernest Beyl is a former U.S. Marine, Hollywood press agent, PR exec and newspaper reporter. These days he spends his time working on a book about San Francisco, writing monthly columns for his city’s Nob Hill Gazette and playing the Chinese gong for the Green Street Mortuary Marching Band. He has written several articles for Saveur Magazine.