This is a post I’ve been musing over for a very long time. It probably started when I was a child when I first discovered that in Germany there is a cookie called an Amerikaner (transl. “an American”). You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that this cookie looked like the ones depicted on the left.
Now, I understand that Germans do not have the same racial history we do in the States, and therefore aren’t as sensitive to this issue. Nevertheless, this seemed a downright racist way to describe Americans to me. I could go off on this rant, but there are other things to talk about so I will leave it at that.
Two events set off my recent, once-and-for-all (albeit Wikipedia) research on the details of this cookie.
Event number one happened while I was in Oregon visiting David. Another high school friend, Will, came over and we watched some Seinfeld episodes on DVD. One of the chosen episodes was The Dinner Party, most famous because of the bit about the chocolate Babka. However, while Elaine and Seinfeld are standing in the bakery waiting their turn, Seinfeld starts a monologue about the Black and White Cookie (the American name for the identical confection) while he eats one in line. Here’s his bit:
“Oh look Elaine, the black and white cookie. I love the black and white. Two races of flavor living side by side. It’s a wonderful thing isn’t it? The thing about eating the Black and White cookie, Elaine, is you want to get some black and some white in each bite. Nothing mixes better than vanilla and chocolate. And yet somehow racial harmony eludes us. If people would only look to the cookie all our problems would be solved.”
Unfortunately, later in the episode, Seinfeld claims he has David Duke and Louis Farrakhan fighting in his stomach and gets sick. Nevertheless, this provided an excellent platform for my own thoughts: I hadn’t been the only one who made this connection!
Event number two happened, coincidentally, only two weeks later when I was back in Radeberg. The German name for the cookie had kept me from actually trying one until a teacher offered me one on a class trip. However, her cookie was all white. Now that added even more complexity to the name! I tried the cookie – it’s actually less a cookie and more a vanilla cake – and it tasted disappointingly bland, except for the white sugar glaze which made it taste overly sweet.
So my quest was official: I had to figure out more about this cookie. Where did it come from? And why is it glazed differently in southern Germany than in eastern Germany?
The second question was easily answered: my parents, who are living in southern Germany, were coming to visit me. I requested two things: their vacuum cleaner (I hadn’t vacuumed since I moved in six months ago) and some Amerikaner. I snapped the above photo before we delved into them – actually, I wasn’t fast enough with the camera, and so I had to “hide” the broken one on the left. Nevertheless, these were dryer (I assume due to the trip), which created negative consequences for the chocolate portion: the dry, semi-sweet chocolate glaze and the dry cake did not mesh well together. However, the moist sugar glaze was just right in terms of moistness and sweetness, but lacked the complexity of the chocolate flavor. Seinfeld was right: you have to get the perfect blend of black and white. That, or assume that the east Germans solved the problem of dryness by sacrificing a bit of flavor. Besides, in the end the cookie is all about sweetness, and not quality confection, isn’t it?
That more or less answered my second question. Wikipedia had to step in for me to answer the first question. However, in finding the answer, I actually found the answer to the sub-question I’d always been asking myself: why is it really called the Amerikaner?
Apparently it’s disputed, but Germans living in post-war American occupation zones in Germany were introduced to several American delicacies in the 40’s and 50’s (including peanut butter and apparently the Black and White cookie). Thus it was called American, because American GIs would bake them with the ingredients on hand, which weren’t many, perfect for a post-war kitchen. However, another more interesting explanation for the name comes from its longer name, called Ammoniumhydrogencarbonatikaner or also Ammoniakaner. These refer to a form of baking powder (also known as Hirschornsalz) used as a leavening agent in the baking process. Of course those are both mouthfuls, and so the name was shortened to Amerikaner. I suppose both of those explanations write off any racist social interpretations that I may have created in my head.
Who knows what really happened. I suppose I could do some more investigation, but for now the case is closed: the cookies have a murky history, I can only speculate as to why the glazing varies throughout Germany, and the most disappointing thing is that they don’t have much flavor. However, I did learn that I haven’t been missing out on abstaining from them, and will happily eat my Marzipankuchen at the café instead – sweet and flavorful!
And for those of you still interestd in Seinfeld, and Superman, here are two funny little clips to help you procrastinate your work just a wee bit longer:
This post is dedicated to Kait, the Seinfeld fan in my life.
“Amerikaner (Gebäck).” URL: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amerikaner_(Geb%C3%A4ck) [accessed March 28, 2007].
“Black and white cookie.” URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_and_white_cookie [accessed March 28, 2007].
“Seinfeld. The Dinner Party.” URL: http://www.seinfeldscripts.com/TheDinnerParty.html [accessed March 28, 2007].