Thursday, November 1, 2012

At home in Berlin

My Berlin Kitchen, Luisa Weiss

This book is a memoir, a travelogue, and as the subtitle says, "A love story (with recipes)."  Luisa Weiss was born in Berlin, the child of an American father and an Italian mother.  When she was three, her parents' marriage broke up, and her father took her back to the United States.  She lived with him in Boston, making frequent trips to visit her mother, who remained in Berlin.  When she was ten, her father reluctantly allowed her to move back to Berlin, initially for one year.  To his dismay, she did not return to America (except on visits) until her college years, after which she found a career in publishing in New York.

Rather than a straight narrative, Weiss gives us a series of short scenes or vignettes, many centered around a favorite food and ending with a recipe.  The first part of the book focuses on her childhood and early adulthood, divided between Boston, Berlin, her mother's family in Italy, and a year spent in Paris for graduate studies. The early years in particular left Weiss

all mishmashed . . . You're this strange little hybrid of a person, easily adaptable, fluent in many languages, an outsider everywhere.  It's the perfect background for becoming a spy, really . . . you struggle with alienation, with commitment issues, and with a constant sense of isolation.

This is one of the major themes of her book: "We mishmashy folk can't pinpoint exactly where home is or even what it is, yet we're constantly longing for it."   For Weiss, cooking provides one home. 

Busying myself in the kitchen was how I conjured the people and places I loved most in the steam rising off the pots on the stove. And when I came down with a rare and chronic illness known as perpetual homesickness, I knew the kitchen would be my remedy.

Settling in New York and into her career in publishing, Weiss found herself perpetually homesick for Berlin.  As always she turned to cooking, and then to blogging about cooking, and her blog became the basis for this book.  But she still longed for Berlin.  It would take her many years and much anguish before she made her home there again.  A major part of the love story of the title is with Berlin itself (though there is a sweet love-at-first-sight romance as well).  But the urban romance was a bumpy one at times, as she adjusted to a very different way of life.

Weiss writes in one chapter about the Eat, Pray, Love type of book, the authors of which rarely end up in Germany, which

with its overcast skies and its inescapable history, often gets the short end of the stick when it comes to capturing the imagination of food lovers and romantics. 

Her book may do something to change that.  I found it just charming, and it has me seriously considering flights to Berlin (not to mention copying recipes).  It felt like an idiosyncratic introduction to the city, focused of course on food. This is not a book to be read on an empty stomach.  It also felt like listening to a friend's stories.  However mishmashed the effects of her childhood, she was surrounded with love from her extended family on both sides of the Atlantic.  I loved her account of reading with her father, with books providing another anchor, to different worlds, "from Narnia to the Wisconsin woods, from a small town in Sweden to the red earth of Prince Edward Island."  If sometimes the dissection of relationships and the constant self-analysis became a little too much, there was always another recipe to consider.  Though some may quibble, I didn't mind that some of the recipes are copied from other chefs (among them Jamie Oliver and Alice Waters).  I certainly appreciate the variety, even if I will never roast my own goose for Christmas Eve.  On the other hand, there is an apple tart recipe that will be perfect for Thanksgiving.


  1. I am very happy to hear you enjoyed this, Lisa. As I've mentioned before, I am so, so looking forward to reading it. Though I love food memoirs about the more expected locations (France, Italy, even India) I have been looking for and hoping for one about Central Europe for years. Finally it is here!

  2. So am I! And you've made it sound even more appealing.

  3. She writes about Berlin and Berliners before and after the Wall, which I found so fascinating. And it was interesting to catch names that I remembered from the Princess Royal's letters to Queen Victoria.

  4. Audrey, our comments overlapped :) I just got the library notice that Consider the Fork is finally in - more food history!

  5. I love food memoirs also and this one sounds lovely. Lots of holds at my library :( Best get on the waiting list now!

    I'm so glad that I have ties to one place I can call home. It would be hard to be a mishmashy person.

  6. Anbolyn, if you're the librarian, do you get to cut in line?

    My family moved several times when I was a kid, and I moved myself for school and work - so I understood a little something of her mishmash.

  7. I spent a summer in Germany as an exchange student as a child, plus we've moved several times as a military family. So, this sounds like a book I would absolutely love.

  8. Karen, we moved around as my dad was in school & took different teaching jobs - though not as much as a military family - but still, I could relate in a small way. But I've only visited Germany briefly.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!