Neighbourhood pubs are a European invention. A place where neighbours meet, after work for a glass of suds, in the early evening for a game of cards or a round of darts, or after dinner for a night cap and exchange of opinions on the latest news (actually, opinions are always on the menu).
Neighbourhood pubs are the places where public opinion, vox populi, is manufactured. This is the place where one can feel, if so inclined, the “pulse of the nation.” It is here where the “little guys” congregate without congregating, where they celebrate themselves without celebration, where social ties are perpetually renewed without intention. A place where codes of conduct are formulated but not written down, services exchanged without remuneration, juniors critiqued and parental successes assessed. Neighbourhood pubs are mini-societies, made of a few city blocks or half a city street – a “neighbourhood” without being aware of that fact.
In the urban neighbourhoods it is mostly families who have lived in their apartment houses almost forever. No detached houses here, no front or back yards, the people park – and often fix – their cars in the street, not the driveway or garage. Sometimes retired couples or singles, but always long time tenants with a pedigree of residence. And they have a very distinct code regarding social interaction. The people here know the first names of all the children in the block and let them into their own kitchen when the parents are late from work.
People here usually watch, and talk about, the same TV shows and buy at the same store. They are the people whom you leave a copy of your house key with in case you lose yours, people who will take your COD’s and check your mail while you are on holidays. However, you don’t casually invite your next-door neighbour into your apartment, but you may borrow a cup of sugar from him. Nor do you have the guy from the same floor over for dinner. Meeting socially takes place at the pub at the corner of the street.
The pub is the place where they come together. Where they have a couple of beers and a chaser after a quarrel with the wife or husband, quietly hoping to find someone to share their misery with – the owner frequently fills that billet – where they show off the daughter’s report card or pictures of the boy’s latest girlfriend (a “keeper”), where they let off steam about work, the price of gasoline and the politics of their hobby club.
The neighborhood pub is not a restaurant, not really an eatery of any kind. There is no menu, no specials, usually not even a kitchen. In Berlin, where I spent most of my twenties, way back, in the days of yore, a time, which my kids, when it comes up in conversation, snicker about, probably not believing that I, too, once had a life similar to theirs today, I occasionally went to the pub at the corner.
Even after many visits over a period of months, I entered as a stranger. Sure, the guests present knew where I lived – second floor, main entrance, number 7 – but they also knew that I was a temporary plant, not here for the long haul. They understood that, once I had my degree from the university, I would leave for greener pastures. Not that they envied me; Berlin, at that time, was surrounded by a wall with a somewhat limited freedom of movement.
So they greeted me with a courteous nod, an acknowledgement of sorts. They never invited me to sit at the Stammtisch, that table reserved for those with status, the regulars, where you had to be a member of the fraternity/sorority (yes, it was co-ed) with a small sign on small chains hanging from a brass support: Stammtisch. Sometimes they would ask me a question about the student revolt, as it was called then. It was, actually, not so much “asking” but more of a somewhat belligerent question or remark, begging for an answer, fog-horned across the tables.
We kept our distance, you understand. One or the other patrons would even suggest that maybe we – the collective students of Berlin – should just move to the eastern part, into the workers’ paradise, or indicate the need for a hair cut. They were, by and large, friendly. But I was never invited to join them in a boisterous game of cards, which some of them seemed to be playing all the time. I was very much aware of my strangeness to these folks, and they made no effort to include me.
Often I would eat a snack. Yes, snacks they have at the pubs. And I remember fondly how cheap they were and how good they tasted. Today, reminiscing, with my kids, or friends politely listening, I cannot escape noticing that most of them make faces at the mention of these snacks. Granted, almost all of them cannot be found on a classy menu and most people I know have never tried them, nor will they, ever. However, I must say, that at that time, in that particular environment, these snacks tasted wonderfully delicious, and, given the chance, I would gladly order, and enjoy, them again today.
There were pickled eggs in a jar, of course, standard fare. One egg for half a dollar (or 50 pfennings at the time), salt and pepper optional. You needed a beer with those on account of the eggs being a tad dry in the mouth. But you did not have to peel them. If the bartender knew you well, he would let you fish for one in the jar, else he would get it for you with a spoon.
Then there was the famous Schmalzstulle, a slice of dark bread, cut off the loaf right in front of you, with a spread of pig fat. Now, don’t get me wrong. We are not talking a strip of fat right off the porker’s back. No, this spread is rendered, melted, and, while still bubbling in its liquid state, diced onions, bacon bits, and apples are added and browned, spices depending on the recipe. The onions and apples would, naturally, settle at the bottom and were invisible once the concoction had re-solidified into a creamy, pearly-white delight. Of course you hoped that the bartender would plunge his knife into the deepest depths of the jar and come up with those delicious fried items and make the Schmalzstulle even more delectable.
Then there were salty pretzels, the large kind that could actually fill you up, peanuts (brought to Berlin by the soldiers of the American occupation forces, but not at all berlinerisch), and dry small, salami-type sausages.
All the snacks were of the itinerant kind, meaning that you could have them while engaged in a conversation with your friends. No need to take knife and fork while gesticulating to make a point – easy on the flow of the exchange and small enough to be inconspicuous as food.
Sometimes, however, on the odd occasion, when the barkeeper/owner was inclined to take a break from drafting beer and pouring Schnaps of all kinds (cherry, apple, pear, apricot), he would be willing to engage in the fabrication of a more elaborate dish. You had to catch him in a good mood because preparation involved the use of a frying pan and a hot plate; and he had to have some fresh homemade potato salad without which the effect would have been halved (and that, in those days, was contingent on his wife, mother, daughter, or girl friend preparing it; my pub owner claimed his grandmother’s efforts for the product). The rather Teutonic name of the dish: Strammer Max.
In any event, this lesser meal required the complete attention of the man behind the counter, and you were, for this short moment, his only customer. If you were thus being indulged, it certainly meant acknowledgement of some achievement of status, because, while preparing the Max, the other guests had to wait for their beer and shooter, and even loud protestations or distracting remarks were of no use.
So, the pub owner/barman took the request – order would be the wrong term here –and, as a first step, turn around, put the pan on the burner, and wait for it to heat up. While waiting, he would huff and puff and tell me many times how much he disliked this inconvenience and that, if I were of a lesser stature, he would not have given my request as much as a first thought. But when the pan signaled, he was completely on the job. He put in a dollop of butter and then a good-size slab of Leberkaes.
Like the forbidden fruit in paradise there is a temptation to call Leberkaes a meat loaf. But this temptation must be resisted because a Leberkaes is nothing like a meat loaf. For one it is not made of ground meat, hence it does not have the rasping texture; au contraire: Leberkaes is as smooth as the belly of a piglet, whose parents supplied the raw material. Smooth in touch and feel. The color is a rather healthy rose, not some earth tone brown or even gray. The bits do not stick in your teeth, and putting it in the mouth calls for savory, conscious chewing. It tastes like ground ham, much better, though (it is, after all, made from pork).
Now, as an additional consideration, the Leberkaes in question is no ordinary Leberkaes from the supermarket, made in some factory, wrapped in plastic and transported for days and miles to the establishment. No, this is the real kind, fresh from the butcher at the corner, who makes it on Thursday afternoon. Because he butchers the unfortunate pigs in the morning and then has to hurry to make the sausages, the headcheese and the meat loaf to be ready for the weekend shoppers. In any event, the meat loaf is best on Thursday evenings. It is still warm and juicy and does not need much heat to be rejuvenated.
Once satisfied that the desired temperature had been reached the barman removes the meat and puts it on the plate on which the Max will be served. Two or three eggs are then cracked into the pan and fried, sunny side up. When the egg white gets brown and crispy at the edges my man lifts them out of the pan with the spatula and places them deftly on the meatloaf.
A pickled cucumber, split in half, a tablespoon of mustard, and a good measure of potato salad complete the arrangement. He turns around and places the plate with determination in front of me, finds a knife and fork in some basket, pushes the napkin dispenser my way, and goes back to his business of drafting beer and dispensing shooters. The conversation resumes, and I am left to enjoy the proletarian taste of the Max. And while I am savoring the simple dish I can hear some of the other guests indicating their fancy for their own Max and the owner telling them off; that he would not spend more time preparing food for some nincompoops (Only to relent, after appropriate amounts of begging and prompting).
And I cherished the emotion that, for the time that it took to make the Max, I was, in a fashion, accepted into the fraternity of guests present, commanding the conversation even if there had not been a conversation. I saw myself as one of the neighbors. I felt joyous at this moment, I wanted to tell my new friends all about me, wanted to know all about them, wanted to join them at their table. Of course, I didn’t, because the moment was only in my head. But, for the duration of the evening, I felt that I belonged, I felt at home. In Berlin. In my neighborhood.
On the way out someone wished me a good night.