Monday, July 26, 2004


I shouldn't just mention the Kentucky Fried Chicken thing without discussing it, because here, I think, we have an interesting insight into Europe in general, and Germany in particular.

One of the first things I ever saw in Europe was a KFC store next to a Pizza Hut store. When you go to Bruges (Brugge) in Belgium, and you're driving, as I was, you have to park in an underground garage outside of the historic center and walk down a narrow street (with loudspeakers playing the Manhattans on that particular day, which was fine with me, if a bit incongruous) until you went through the old city walls. And there, on that street, there was a KFC and a Pizza Hut. I went into the Tourist Information Center for the routine I'm-writing-a-travel-article speech, and after I'd made contact, I asked the lady who in the world ate at Pizza Hut. "Americans, I guess," she said. And you know, she was probably right. After all, the Italian diaspora has deposited pizzerias on just about every streetcorner in Europe.

Now, I'm not going to defend KFC. In fact, I haven't had any since at least 1970, when I remember some friends getting a bunch of it and I bit into a leg, whose tasty coating came off, revealing a smell of cooked, rotten chicken that nauseated me. But I do consider fried chicken to be a glory of American cuisine, and try to get some every time I'm back there. (Of course, I could also make it here, since there's no impossible-to-get ingredient involved). And, like the hamburger, another basic signature American food, fried chicken got exported by a rapacious multinational, in this case Heublein, Inc., who bought Harlan Sanders out years ago.

It caught on like crazy. Everywhere you go in Europe these days, KFC is there. It's second only to le Mac Do in Paris in its ubiquity, and the former communist East is well taken care of.

But not in Germany. And therein lies my point.

Germans eat very little chicken as it is: this is a monoculture, meat-wise and that meat is pork. I have lived over stores with meat markets that carried no beef or chicken -- and this was no specialty shop, it was an Edeka Markt, a huge German franchise. I soon discovered another market in my neighborhood, a Bolle (which chain has disappeared), but it, too, didn't carry chicken, although I could at least get ground beef there.

But the streets of Berlin are loaded with chickens. They revolve in a glass-sided rotisserie in the window of every Turkish Döner Kebap shop, and a half-chicken is a very typical lunch or dinner, given how cheap they are. They're also usually rubbed down with a salt-MSG mixture that will stimulate a mighty thirst for beer, which the Kebap shop is always happy to provide at a nice markup, and they're the greasiest chickens I've ever had. Now, whether the Turks got the chicken from the Germans or vice-versa I can't say. I can say that here in Berlin there's a magnificent place called Henne (which means, of course, hen) that makes the Platonic ideal of the Halbe Hänchen, served with either potato salad or cabbage salad. It pretends it's just a bar with a bit of food for sale (and it's true, there's almost nothing else on the menu), but I've never known any other bar that takes reservations so you can have a snack to help you drink more beer. Henne's chicken is raised in Bavaria by the owner's brother, and fed on milk, the menu claims. Above the bar there's a letter from JFK saying how sorry he was to have missed dinner there after his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech at Rathaus Schöneberg.

So it's not like Germans don't eat chicken at all.

But they sure don't eat KFC. I mentioned in my last post how I met the manager of the KFC on Budapester Str. near the Europa Center here in Berlin as he peered into the on-vacation dry cleaner's place. I didn't socialize with him or hang out with him, but I was aware he was around, sort of vaguely. Then one day the lampposts in the neighborhood sprouted signs in English: "Moving back to America. Selling furniture, books, appliances." Okay, I could use some books, so I went to the address noted there and there was the KFC guy. Why are you moving, I asked him. "I got fired." That sounded odd. "Yeah, I wasn't making any money. People don't come into the store. We go hours without a customer. I've worked for KFC all over Europe and now they think I've lost it, so I have to go back for more training. I don't need more training, I need customers."

Folks, this guy was down. But when I thought about it, I realized I'd been all over the city, seen Pizza Huts, Burger Kings and McDonalds, and never once seen a KFC. In fact, next time I was around the Europa Center, I made a point to go look. It was, as he'd said, there, and the employees did indeed look Malaysian, as he'd said they were. But it was spotless and empty. And the reason for this is simple.

There's only one way to make chicken. And that ain't it.

You think I'm kidding? When I first moved here, I was in the wonderful Arminius Halle, an old-time market hall near my house that had stands run by various vendors of cheese, vegetables, meat, exotica (a Greek store, an Italian store, an "Asia" store), and the occasional shoe repair or used-book stall. There was one sausage-maker I liked to get stuff at, and one time I was waiting in line when I saw something that looked like slab bacon. Now, Germans don't make bacon; it's just not part of their culture. So when I got to the head of the line, I pointed at this stuff and asked the lady if she could slice some up for me, very thin. "No," was the curt reply. Why not? "Because we don't do that." Go home, foreign scum.

It's one of the things that holds this country back: there's only one way to do something, and innovation is bad. Wo ist die Sicherheit? Where's the security in doing something no one's ever done before? You don't know, do you? So why risk it?

Fry chicken? No, you rotisserie-grill it. Anyway, you don't want to eat much of it because it's not pork.

Having said this, it's also my observation that it's a rare European country that's very culinarily adventuresome. The Dutch, in fact, stand out for this: it's routine to find Indonesian stuff in their shops, among other things, and they seem very open to new ideas. Maybe this is because it's rare to find a Dutch person who'll stick up for Dutch food.

Do I expect to find it any more tolerant if I move to France? No, I don't. But I do know they like to invent new dishes, and that although a given individual there might believe there's only one way to do something, by and large the society would see that as folly. Is France any more open to innovation in business and technology? It appears that way, but I don't want to get my hopes up. But I do know that pork's not the only thing on the menu.

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