After a long, unpleasant bout of intestinal problems that made me feel like I was perishing of some 19th-century wasting disease, I have been feeling better since my gastroenterologist put me on a gluten- and casein (milk protein)-free diet. The diet has helped me a lot, but it’s also expensive (because most cheap food involves gluten) and high-maintenance (because most food that can be grabbed on the go involves gluten). I mostly eat steamed vegetables, rice, fish, and meat. Quite a lot of meat, in fact, because my malady has also made me both iron deficient and bad at stomaching iron pills. There really should be a German word for the complicated guilt-tinged delight that a person who feels guilty about eating meat but finds it very tasty experiences upon being given doctor’s orders to eat a lot of red meat.
Because I never really bought or cooked meat in the past, suddenly having to eat a lot of it is a bit perplexing. What’s really perplexing, though, is how incredibly pork-centric the German meat realm is. I have come to believe that the German diet has exactly three components: gluten, casein and pork. Whether at the butcher’s counter or in the packages-of-meat section of the supermarket, what “meat” seems to mean here is a vast array of pork products with a wee smattering of beef, chicken and mutton. I stand before the meat stumped. I have no idea how to distinguish among Schweinelachs, Schweinekamm, Schweinebauchscheiben, Schweinefilet, and Vordereisbein vom Schwein, nor what exactly one is supposed to do with any of them. I guess I’d noticed before that Germans eat a lot of pork, though I never understood how marginal other meats were. In all the canteens of my Berlin office jobs the one hot meal that was served every day without fail was a slab of pork with a side of potatoes. A lot of canteen-goers – especially men – seemed to eat a slab of pork for lunch literally every single day. Even the salad bar was generously sprinkled with pork. I remember German colleagues remarking that it just wasn’t an office Christmas party without a proper meal of pork.
I have never in my life eaten a slab of pork. The Vorstellung of meat that I grew up with was that chicken was what you ate for dinner on an ordinary day, and beef was the more expensive, less healthy meat you ate a few times a month. Pork was at most the occasional piece of bacon at breakfast. At some point in my childhood the US pork industry ran a widely mocked advertising campaign for “pork, the other white meat,” which seemed like a sad attempt to convince people to eat something nobody ate. So was my childhood impression that pork was some obscure, little-consumed butt of jokes a US-German difference or were my family’s food habits just weird? The latter was a distinct possibility – I’d only very recently learned that eating your scrambled eggs with cottage cheese was “a thing my weird family did” as opposed to “a thing Americans do”.
So I looked up some global meat consumption statistics and it turns out that in this case, my family wasn’t weird: Germans eat pork, and Americans eat chicken and beef. More broadly, Europeans and East Asians eat the most pork while North and South Americans and Australians eat the most beef. The average American ate 125 kilos of meat in 2007, according to the Economist, with US meat consumption declining since then. 40% of it is poultry, 34% beef and 24% pork. Germans eat a more modest 88 kilos a year of meat, and about two-thirds of that – 56 kilos – is pork. Only 15% of German meat consumption is beef, and only 17% is poultry. Germans aren’t the world’s leading pork-eaters, though – that title goes to Austria, at 66 annual kilos of pork per capita.
A Scottish friend (perhaps herself harboring some residual Scottish pork taboo) once told me that just as Europe can be divided into tea-drinking countries and coffee-drinking countries, it also divides into lamb-eating countries and pork-eating countries. Lamb and tea don’t line up in all cases, but both tend to be found at the periphery – Greece, Iceland, the UK & Ireland – ringing a heavy coffee-and-pork belt at the center of the continent. At least the coffee here in the pork belt is excellent – and free of gluten, casein or pork.
Here are a couple of resources for the challenging task of gluten-free eating in very bread-y Berlin: