by Misha Feigin
Part 1 – The Yellow Cheese Road
Hofheim, Germany -“So, how often your father had Limburger cheese? Once a week?”
“Once a year!” chuckles my old Louisville friend with the good German name Maier.
“That was all my mother allowed him. She was English.” My friend shakes his head: “I still remember the stench. It was horrendous.”
Passion for smelly cheeses is certainly a clear sign of native heritage that was transplanted to the Land of the Free with German immigrants. And it somehow managed to survive through the years of relentless assimilation and constant trouble prompted by the frequent and (often) quite malignant misbehavior of the old country. The first wave of German immigrants reached the River City in the middle of the 19th century. Besides the ability to make strong-odored cheeses, the newcomers brought other skills. They were carpenters and butchers, tailors and cobblers, masons and, of course, beer brewers. They all wanted to settle down and build their own homes, so the city of Louisville generously provided them with a marshy piece of land on the edge of town.
The settlement acquired a trade name – Schnitzelburg (from the German Schnitzel – shred, scrap) – and later became the heart and soul of the area we know today as Germantown.
The sound of hammers and saws filled the humid Kentucky air, and in time the blocks of clean, whitewashed shotgun houses came to existence alongside solid, intrinsically build churches. Beer pubs opened their doors for the thirsty on seemingly every corner, offering their own hand-brewed beer. At the time you could observe young kids with pails hurrying down the neighborhood streets to the nearest beer dispenser to fetch fresh beer for a family dinner. (These days, can you think of sending your teenage son to get a couple six packs from the corner gas station? You better not.) Alas, the young beer messengers stopped their activities in Schnitzelburg in the first part of the 20th century, when commercial beer production squeezed the small breweries out of existence. But if you pay a visit to Schnitzelburg today, you can stop for a drink at any of the dozen neighborhood pubs that function in a four-by-five-block area. And in the place called Flabby’s, you can have some distinctly German dishes, including a Limburger cheese sandwich. Just do not let yourself to be intimidated by the smell; wash it all down with a pint of fresh Wersteiner on tap.
And if you prefer to know what you’re eating, here’s what the revered German Heinerman book of miracle healing foods tells us about Limburger cheese:
“Made of goat milk, strong smelling, but piquant, spice testing soft cheese with somewhat smutty yellowish surface.”
Germans in Kentucky!
I am sitting in an open air cafe on the main street (die Haupstrasse) of the small and pretty 650-year-old town of Hofheim, 15 miles northwest of Frankfurt. A waiter has just brought me a tall glass of fresh Wersteiner pilsner. The weather today is glorious, the temperature in the 70s. Cherry trees are in full bloom. Flowers are everywhere – in the house gardens, in the window flower-boxes, daffodils, tulips. Surprisingly, for the first time since before Easter, the German sky is serene blue with a few fluffy clouds.
It is lunch time, and I enjoy watching the busy crowd. Many people in the street dress with a style. The women often wear elegant scarves and master the art of walking on high heels on cobblestones. The men look quite relaxed in their long trench coats and Italian shoes. Sitting in a street cafe on the Haupstrasse feels just like sitting at a sidewalk table in one of the Heine Bros. coffee shops in Louisville. Every five minutes somebody you know stops to say hello or to exchange the news.
My street neighbor Andreas joins me at the table for a beer and a conversation. I show him the Flabby’s menu I have brought with me from Louisville.
“Germans in Kentucky!” Andreas looks surprised. “Do they eat Kentucky fried chicken?” He notices the German sausage and Limburger cheese sandwich on the menu. “I am impressed!” he utters with respect.
“We played jokes with Limburger cheese in my school years. If you put a little piece of it behind a heating radiator, in two or three days nobody will be able to breathe in the room.” Andreas goes on: “Maybe that is what Americans should look for in Iraq, the Limburger cheese WMD. A few well-trained cheese inspectors following the familiar smell – and no war.”
Another neighbor, Monika, joins us at the table with a cup of coffee. Now we speak about politics.
“Most of us in Germany view the Untied States negatively since the beginning of the war in Iraq,” she says. “We think of it as an illegitimate and harmful enterprise.” I ask what happened to the gratitude to Americans for liberating Germany from Hitler and the Nazis.
“I think it is over now,” Monika answers with the celebrated German directness. “We are not unfriendly to Americans. We understand the difference between people and the government.”
Andreas answers my other question. “We wear American blue jeans and sneakers – it’s all made in Indonesia anyway. It is just a fashion. We might all wear everything Russian style starting next week.” I order one more beer. We continue to enjoy ourselves, the weather, and peace in the neighborhood.
Misha Feigin is a Russian emigre, a musician and writer who lives in Louisville. He is currently touring Europe, where he is performing. — Louisville Eccentric Observer March 21 2004