In Former East Germany, a Search for Lost Foods
When I was planning a recent trip to Berlin, it was not the Brandenburg Gate, the Pergamon Museum, or even Checkpoint Charlie that topped my must-do list. Sampling the city's best currywurst—that unique combination of chopped hot dogs drowned in curry powder-spiked ketchup—came close, but it didn't make my number-one spot, either. No, the place I most longed to visit was Ostkost, a small shop that specializes in foods from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR, a.k.a. East Germany).
I had first become aware of Ostkost a few years ago, after hearing about Ostalgie—a portmanteau of the German words for "nostalgia" and "east" —an early 2000s phenomenon connoting nostalgia for life in the GDR. The Ostalgie movement coincided with the brilliant 2003 film Good Bye, Lenin!, which recounts the tale of Alex, a teenager who chooses to recreate life in the GDR for his mother, an ardent Communist who collapses into a coma just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. She awakens eight months after the Wall topples, but the doctors tell Alex that anything too shocking might kill her. So while the outside world reflects a Technicolor explosion of consumerism, Alex recreates a small slice of GDR life in his mother's apartment, foraging for cast-off clothes at thrift stores and weathered boxes of food in abandoned apartments, emblems of their past life.
When Ostalgie swept Germany, all the cool kids in Berlin (many who were barely out of diapers when the Wall crashed down) were throwing GDR parties, fetishizing Trabant cars, and, apparently, shopping for East German foodstuffs. Personally, I was five years old and living in a comfortable New York City apartment when the Berlin Wall fell, which is about as far as you can get from Stasi headquarters.
Can you be nostalgic for something you have not personally experienced? The word "nostalgia" comes from the Greek nostos, meaning return, and algos, meaning suffering. As Milan Kundera poignantly wrote, "Nostalgia is the unappeased yearning to return." I might not have been raised on Globus peas or Spreewald pickles like Alex in the film, but my childhood brushed with Socialism when my family moved to Budapest, Hungary, in the early 1990s. Just as Burger King and Coca-Cola were the first emblems of modernity in Good Bye, Lenin!, they, too, were well-established in Budapest when we arrived there in 1993. But I can't imagine that early '90s Budapest, where life was shrouded in the same mustard-yellows, mauves, and army greens, and whose drab, gray buildings reflected drab, gray skies, differed much from the GDR, at least from a culinary standpoint. Finding lettuce at the supermarket during the winter months in 1993 in Budapest was laughable, and Western products remained scarce. One of the most exciting moments of our two-year stint in Hungary was the day when an unexpected shipment of Camp maple syrup appeared in our neighborhood supermarket located on Batthyány Tér. As my mother and I practically wept with joy for this familiar reminder of home, the bottles ironically went untouched by the Hungarians, who considered them ridiculously costly at about five dollars apiece and who also simply didn't know what to do with them.
In Good Bye, Lenin!, food and food choices symbolize progress (in another telling scene, Alex's older sister quits college to work at Burger King). As Alex narrates, "Overnight our drab corner store became a gaudy consumer paradise and I was its king." But when he goes shopping for his mother's favorite products from the GDR , he encounters difficulties:
"Mocca Fix?" he asks a shopkeeper.
"We don't have that any more," she says.
"Fillinchen crisp bread?"
"Not in stock anymore."
"Boy, where have you been hiding? ... We have Western money now and you want Mocca Fix and Fillinchen?"
When I told my friends in Berlin that I wanted to go to Ostkost, I was met with similar reactions. But why? And so I made the trip to Prenzlauer Berg, where Ostkost is located, alone.
In the earlier part of the decade, Prenzlauer Berg attracted artists and musicians, but stroller-pushing, more affluent dwellers have slowly pushed them out to Kreuzberg and Neukölln, and the area now is decidedly gentrified. Ostkost is located at 54 Lychener Straße, a quiet street dotted with boutiques and coffee shops.
As I pushed open the doors and entered the small store, I wondered if I had written down the wrong address. Instead of walls of GDR foods, I saw boxes of organic cereal, bottles of juice, and holistic skincare products. This was the kind of store catering to bourgeois bohemian types seeking eight-dollar chocolate bars and artisanal baby food.
I meandered through the store and finally hit the GDR section, tucked away in back and offering a pitiful selection of goods: a few household cleaning products, a particular brand of apple juice, a wrapped package of soap, among a few other items. Where were the aisles filled with Spreewald pickles and Mocca Fix and Fillinchen? I didn't want to leave empty-handed, though, so I purchased a one-liter bottle of Vita Cola, which was a popular soda drink in East Germany before Coca-Cola swept in and crushed its production.
When I returned to the Berlin apartment where I was staying, I twisted off the red cap of my Vita Cola and poured myself a large glass. I sipped the cold, brown cola, its bubbles quietly fizzing. Like Coca-Cola, it was effervescent and sweet, but it left an almost bitter, citrusy aftertaste in my mouth. Frankly, it wasn't very good.
In the film, Alex eventually decides to discontinue his charade and hilariously stages the end of the GDR to coincide with Germany's reunification. While contemplating his handiwork, though, he notes, "The [GDR] I created for her was the one I wanted for myself." In many respects, the OstKost I envisioned was the one I wanted for myself: one that ignores dowdy packaging and subpar taste.
But I didn't want the Vita Cola because I expected it to be a superior product. Coca-Cola has succeeded worldwide for a reason: it tastes really good. I wanted to buy Vita Cola because it is a vestige of a time that no longer exists. More so than any other commodity, food locates us, both spatially and temporally. It shouldn't be surprising that in Good Bye, Lenin!, Alex's mother's first request after waking up from her coma is for Spreewald pickles. And it doesn't matter that she can't tell the difference between Spreewalds and the new Dutch pickles that Alex secretly substitutes into an old jar. When we are nostalgic for foods, it is rarely the taste of the food itself that we crave. We are looking for the moment, the locus. When Proust writes of his madeleine, he does not write of its sumptuous, buttery flavor or of the sweet, lemon-hued crumbs. I bet his madeleine probably didn't even taste all that good. He had to moisten it in tea, after all.
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how foods actually taste, because our memories will always tell us otherwise.