Saturday, August 15, 2009

Berlin dedicates museum to street-corner snack of wurst cuisine

The colours hit your eye even before the meat concoction hits your stomach: a gory red and yellow, a sprinkling of radioactive orange powder.

In the view of critics, Berlin’s fabled currywurst resembles a particularly vivid car crash. Yet the pork sausage, covered with chilli powder, cayenne pepper and syrupy sauce, is considered to be Berlin’s culinary triumph — and, from today, Berlin has a museum dedicated to the snack. It is rather as if Glasgow were to establish an exhibition centre for deep-fried Mars bars.

Vienna has its schnitzel, Brussels its mussels but Berlin has the messy wurst that regularly sends unwitting tourists hurtling towards the city’s public lavatories.

Plainly, the hope is to create a site of currywurst pilgrimage. There will be an interactive guide through the sausage’s controversial history and, to entice the hoped-for 350,000 annual visitors, a currywurst stand in the basement so that the smell of animal fat can waft through the building.

The museum has the enthusiastic support of Berliners, who consider the strange sausage to be a test of love for the German capital.

Gerhard Schröder, the former Chancellor — once married to a strict vegetarian — used to have his chauffeur stop at a currywurst stand on the way to the office. The former US President Bill Clinton bit into the sausage on his trips to Berlin. Every candidate for the city’s mayoralty needs to be photographed by a currywurst stand.

Even the New York chef Anthony Bourdain has sung its praises — but then he has also sampled the beating heart of a cobra in Vietnam and the rectum of a Namibian warthog.

The museum’s aim seems to be to proclaim that the currywurst is the quintessential Berlin pavement food, despite strong competition from the kebab — a strong contender in a city with a 300,000-strong Turkish community.

It is promoting the food at the museum with pictures of film stars holding the sausage.

So rather than admit that the city is losing one of its institutions, Berlin has established a museum in its honour. Every filmstar who has ever been photographed holding the sausage is now featured in the museum to prove that the food is not only urban and authentic but also glamorous.

Berlin also has to make clear to the world that it really is the city that gave birth to the currywurst. The novelist Uwe Timm claims in his 1993 book The Invention of the Curry Wurst that he first tasted one in 1947 — in Hamburg. And there are rival claims from the Ruhr that it first saw the light of day there as a snack for workers.

Berlin’s story is that, after the war women, many war widows, kept the city going by setting up small businesses to feed their fatherless children. One was Herta Heuwer who, in September 1949, set up a sausage stand in the middle of the red-light district that was so successful that currywurst became a cult foodstuff. By 1959 she had patented the sauce as Chillup.

Since the 1950s, a proper currywurst etiquette has developed. The customer has to specify whether he wants the sausage with or without skin (made specially out of pig’s stomach), sharp (with cayenne pepper on top of the curry powder) or extra sharp (with the seeds of a chilli), or with a mixture of diced raw onion and chilli.

At its most fashionable, along the shopping boulevard Kurfürstendamm, for example, it is served with champagne. Late at night, after the theatres have closed, a prominent actress can often be seen feeding her two Afghan wolfhounds with the sausage. So far they seem to have survived.

An East German version was developed in the 1960s. Konnopke’s currywurst stand, in East Berlin, was a classic rendezvous point for Eastern and Western spies during the Cold War. They, on the whole, did not survive.

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