This shouldn’t be hard, I thought. What had happened was that my parsley chopper, or, more accurately, herb mill, had broken. It was to be expected; it was a couple of years old, made of plastic, and had performed admirably. These things happen.
I had never really known I’d wanted one until I had dinner at a friend’s house some years back. She’d been preparing to move away from Berlin, and had been going over her kitchen, which was a mess, looking for stuff to pack. In the process, she discovered that her mother had given her two herb mills, made by Mouli, a French company with a long pedigree of excellence. The down-side of all Mouli products, though, was that they were made from some cheap metal which inevitably sooner or later bent or broke; I’d gone through a dozen Mouli graters, the definitive Parmesan cheese tool, in my time.
So I took it home and discovered that one of my least-favorite kitchen chores, chopping parsley, had gone from a five-minute task to a 30-second task. Excellent! But eventually, that cheap metal caught up with me; the parsley stems had bent a couple of the choppers and they wouldn’t pass through the slots, so I had to get another.
The new one was much like the earlier one, but it was plastic. The way this tool works is that it has two parts, the body, which holds a bay for the herbs with a number of parallel slots through which the chopped herbs pass, and a wheel with a crank and an axle on which some thin blades are mounted, which, when turned, force the herbs through the slots while mincing them. The plastic turned out to be more durable, a technological improvement.
But I’m lazy. When I pull parsley leaves from the stems, I always think of my Arab-American friend Jim, who I knew in Texas. Jim came from Michigan, where there are a lot of Arab-Americans (he was, more specifically, Lebanese-American), and he fell in love with Jessica, a girl from Taylor, Texas, thereby uniting two of his favorite things, girls and barbeque, since Taylor is home to the great Louie Mueller, and was once home to another world-class barbeque chef, Vencil Mares. Jim was another world-class barbequer, just a talent he discovered he had, and I don’t think any commercial barbeque joint has ever come up with anything like the briskets he used to cook.
But marrying into his family meant pleasing a lot of old Arab-American women who wanted to be certain the new bride could cook traditional dishes, and Jessica was asked to make tabbouleh, the classic cracked-wheat-and-parsley salad, in order to win their approval of the wedding. “Not one stem from the parsley in the tabbouleh, young lady!” was how Jim’s grandmother put it. “Boy,” she said later, “I was really sweating this, but I passed.” Parsley stems are tough, and they get caught in your teeth, and although I wouldn’t forbid my grandson from getting married for such a trivial thing, the fact is it’s not just your teeth they can get caught in, it’s also the teeth of the Mouli herb mill. That’s what wrecked the metal one, and, a few years later, it’s what wrecked the plastic one, too. I always reminded myself I was trying to please Jim’s grandmother, but sometimes you get rushed, or you get lazy. Like I said, these things happen.
So a couple of weeks ago, I decided it was time to replace it. The plastic herb mill had been made by Zyliss, a superb Swiss maker of cooking equipment, well engineered and inexpensive; I’d used the Zyliss Blitzhacker to chop stuff for years, as much amused by its name as I was pleased with its performance. The herb mill, I’ve discovered from poking around that website, is the model 1400.
I’d gotten it at Galleries Lafayette, which always had a good range of Zyliss stuff, so one day I walked down there to get another. To my surprise, their whole cooking-utensil section had shrunk to one tiny display of mostly expensive stuff, and a whole lot of high-end Laguiole corkscrews. I shrugged; it was a nice day, and surely the big Kaufhof department store in Alexanderplatz would have one; they’d always had a good selection of Zyliss stuff. So I walked to Alexanderplatz.
The Kaufhof there had been a big department store with another name during the division of the city. I remember going there on my first trip to East Berlin, and the guy who was showing me around depleted some of the 25 East Marks you had to buy before they’d let you in on a fake hand-grenade, which was apparently used in some kind of high-school grenade-tossing competition. He used it later as a paperweight. Until recently, Kaufhof had had its original hideous East German facade, a kind of gridwork with no windows, but then a multi-year facelift happened, where they actually enlarged the store while keeping it open all the time, an interesting engineering feat.
More room, you’d think, would mean more stuff. So I was astonished to find that even though more square feet were available in the cooking-supplies section, Zyliss products weren’t. At all. Now, for those of you who aren’t aware of this, a lot of retail involves companies buying space. This happens a lot in groceries, where you pay the grocery chain for preferential placement where your product is more easily seen by shoppers, but it also happens in department stores, where your brand can buy square footage. Somehow, Kaufhof is all pots and pans and knives now, with gadgets, like herb mills, pushed to the side. They still have gadgets, but not as wide a selection as before. Furthermore, with Zyliss gone, in the gadget department that meant no herb mills.
This was something of a crisis. Americans may have trouble believing this, but here in Berlin there just aren’t any stores which sell cooking stuff. You need a gadget, you could be out of luck; I went through this earlier this year with the amazing vegetable peeler I’d picked up in a store in Paris: I looked at it and realized that it was absolutely perfect, and so it proved to be: it never jams, it zips through potatoes and carrots and everything else with ease, and it fits in the hand so ergonomically that it’s a joy to use. I wound up having to correspond with the company and then buying it online from Meilleur du Chef. (I notice they, too, don’t have the Zyliss one, just a metal one, which looks too much like my first one).
The reason for this is very simple: if it’s not meant for making German food, it’s going to be very hard to find. The stuff you need to prepare German meals are available in any supermarket, although you can buy better-quality examples at places like Kaufhof. Now, you’d think that the yuppification of Berlin would override this, particularly in such a yuppified neighborhood as Prenzlauer Berg. And, in fact, there is a cooking store in Prenzlauer Berg, and I went there the other day to see what they had. All too typically, the woman running the store was on the phone gossiping with a friend when I got there, so instead of asking for help, I walked around, looking for my herb mill. This place is an object lesson in the German attitude towards cooking: lots of expensive pots and pans, lots of expensive knives, a selection of Laguiole corkscrews in a locked glass vitrine — in short, lots of expensive stuff you can display in your home, whether you actually use it or not, to advertise the fact that you’ve got money and an interest in food. I made the circuit of the store three times before I could figure out where in the hell the herb mill — which I knew had to be there somewhere — was, and I finally located it displayed among a range of the most expensive kitchen utensils you can buy in Germany, gleaming stainless steel items that you can buy for 1/3 to 1/2 the price anywhere else. And yes, it â‚¬18, or at least twice what a Zyliss would cost. In the great German service tradition, the woman never got off the phone during the entire 15 minutes I was there. All I can tell you is that some guy she knows is going to be surprised by divorce papers soon. Oh, and I can also tell you I’m not going back there. But you probably figured that out.
But I want to get back to that first sentence in that last paragraph. Is it bad that “if it’s not meant for making German food, it’s going to be very hard to find?” See, this is something I’ve been thinking about when it comes to moving to France: culinary traditions are traditions because people keep them going through the generations. Great culinary traditions are perpetuated by people who are notoriously uncurious about other great culinary traditions. Most French towns are like Henry Ford and the Model T: you can have any kind of food you want in the restaurants as long as it’s French. I remember reading an anecdote in the New Yorker by a guy who was living in Rome with his two young sons. One night, just for variety, they went to a Chinese restaurant in their neighborhood. To their surprise, the waiter was Italian. The father asked him what was good on the menu, and the waiter drew himself up and said “You don’t think I eat here, do you?” No, of course not.
Nor should I assume that even though it’s not particularly to my taste a lot of the time, German cooking isn’t a great culinary tradition. I would love to hear someone defend the local brand of cooking, which is hardly as sophisticated as the cuisines of Swabia or Bavaria (and they’re not really all that sophisticated), but I’m willing to concede the point. This is, after all, about taste.
But Berlin is a Big City, or so we’re told. (It’s large, I’ll grant you that). Furthermore, it’s got some world-class Italian restaurants because Germans are inveterate vacationers (sure: they get six weeks’ vacation!) and a lot of the younger generation (ie, my age or younger — I mean in the grand scheme of things) took to vacationing in Northern Italy, where they discovered the food and wine were to their liking. Thus, the yuppie food-gadget store has pasta machines and ravioli trays, and we can assume those Laguioles are opening at least as many Barolos and Chianti Classicos as they are Qualitätswein mit Predikat. At least nominally, in other words, Berlin is tentatively multicultural in the kitchen. Not that they’ll be embracing the likes of Eric Gower any time soon (which is a shame). But, dammit, most of the time I’m mincing parsley, it’s for Italian food.
So I’m stuck. At some point I’m probably going to head off to the giant KaDeWe department store to see if they’ve got this thing, but since they’re now owned by the same gigantic concern which owns Kaufhof (and three other major department-store chains in Germany), I’m not too sanguine about having any success. Maybe fate will allow me a short trip to Amsterdam or Paris or Montpellier in the near future, places where I’m certain I’ll find what I want. Meanwhile. I’m mincing parsley with the excellent knife I bought in Kyoto five years ago. It’s a great knife, but the task is still a pain in the ass.