A Proustian Pretzel

I’m not alone in having food trigger an involuntary memory, although it wasn’t Proust’s madeleine that did the trick for me.  My time-travel experience happened when I read a post detailing a blogging friend’s experiments making pretzel rolls. Boom, I was back in Germany visiting my aunt.


There was a lot of pretzel-eating on this trip. Here, in Munich.

I’m an Army brat and my childhood took place in two very different settings: my German grandparents’ home and US Army life at Patch Barracks near Stuttgart.


Eagle-eyed readers may notice that Oma is wearing the ring I wrote about in “Worthless.” She is also the young lady in my blog header.

Returning to Germany was bittersweet. It was  magical, really, to be surrounded by so much that was foreign yet still comfortingly familiar. And it was sad to feel the absence of my long-gone grandparents, the Oma und Opa, who were such a joyful part of my childhood.

We traveled to Germany to celebrate our 20th anniversary and on the itinerary was a visit to my aunt, the Tante Elfriede (pronounced Ell-free-da.) She was a favorite relative of mine as a child; I remembered her as warm, funny, and playful. And very beautiful.


My Tante Elfriede as a young mother.

Thirty years had elapsed since I’d last seen her and she was still beautiful and kind. I was nervous about our first meeting. Would she like me? Would we be stiff and uncomfortable with one another? Never fear. As we approached the house, she came out from around the back and cried, “Ach Gott, das lumpenmensch!” and hugged me warmly. And suddenly the memory of her nickname for me flooded back after all those years. Note: it means rag man. I guess we’d say something “you little ragamuffin.” Whatever. Some things just don’t translate.

We overcame the language barrier with a combination of my rusty fourth-grade German, Beloved Husband’s excellent vocabulary (he knows a lot of German words but cannot string them together,) and gestures.

Let’s just say this about the visit: there’s a lot of power in genes. Tante was an uncanny blend of my mother and my long-dormant memories of my Oma.  Her mannerisms and facial expressions were so exactly like my mother’s that BH and I would look sidelong at each other: “Do you believe this?”

Early our last morning there, we awoke to a beautifully set breakfast table and a carafe full of fresh coffee. Tante, however, was nowhere to be found.

So we sat sipping coffee and studying the atlas she had placed on the table planning that day’s travels. It wasn’t long before she came pedaling up on her bicycle with a bag full of German broetchen. She had gotten up early and biked to the village bakery to buy the freshest possible for us. This because BH had casually mentioned how much he loves them.


Broetchen Galore!

After breakfast, we said our goodbyes and as we prepared to leave, both of us knowing it was probably the last time we’d see each other, Tante Elfriede handed me a bag for lunch. Hugs, kisses, and a tear or two, and off we went headed into the Black Forest.


The morning of our departure reviewing old photographs.

We stopped for lunch hours later at one of those beautiful roadside scenic areas abundant in Germany. And Tante had packed us sandwiches made from buttered pretzel rolls, filled with the loveliest fresh salami which had warmed and softened into the bread during the morning’s drive and little paper-thin slices of cucumber. There was a bottle of fruity red wine and apples, I remember.

Can a pretzel broetchen convey love and care? I think so. I wonder if my dear Tante could have imagined as she was preparing those sandwiches for us that we would remember and be grateful for them twenty years on. Surely not.

Do we ever really grasp how much impact our smallest gestures can have?

How about you? Is there a time-travel food for you?

Thanks for reading,

Das Lumpenmensch





About Silver in the Barn

Life in a 1915 farmhouse in Central Virginia. And the odd thought or two.
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59 Responses to A Proustian Pretzel

  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Well a very affecting tale. Family bonds are often much deeper than we know (and sometimes more than we would like!). Some real treasure memories for you. Regards thom


  2. Barbara I love your writing style. And this was a lovely, emotional post… My time travel food is a lobster roll – split top, toasted, then loaded with my Mom’s lobster salad… I’m 7 again playing on the shore in Maine without a care in the world…



  3. nrhatch says:

    Loved this post, Barbara ~ the photos, the fab food, the familiar family ties, the funny nicknames.


  4. Dianna says:

    Aw…..such a wonderful post! And I do recall your post about the ring: lovely!


  5. My French Heaven says:

    I love your old family pictures. You can feel the love in every one of them… Family is everything to me too. Very inspired by your post this evening. Thank you!


    • My pleasure, My French Heaven. I’ve not come across your blog before and have just briefly glimpsed at your most recent post. How beautiful it is! Your photographs are just spectacular. I have to go read more about that calamari now. Many thanks for reading and commenting.


      • My French Heaven says:

        You are most welcome! And I see in your avatar that you are a Westie person. I am too! Mine is 13 and her name is Cali. They are the best dogs!!!


      • Oh yes, the very best. I have two, Max is 8 and my beloved Berkley-boy is pushing 15. My love for these two little beasts knows no bounds which I am sure you understand completely. I must say I am so happy to have discovered your absolutely wonderful blog and look forward to savoring each post.


  6. Julie Clark says:

    Oh, Barbara, I loved this post! It made me cry. Such an endearing travel story about early, influential family ties. I remember my grandmother’s delightful smelling kitchen in her classic white clapboard house in Cartersville, Georgia, circa 1950’s. She had a white wood pie safe where the flour was kept and sifted from an enclosed tin container onto a board where she would add the milk and salt and soda to mix biscuits with her hands. There were no recipes, just her instinct for perfect dough. I loved to watch her roll out the dough and cut out the round circles, which would rise to incredible heights in the oven…filling the house with an incredible scent.


    • That’s the word, Julie, “instinct.” Those lovely southern biscuits were something your grandmother probably made thousands of times over her life and never once had a recipe. And wouldn’t you just love to have that old pie safe now – a real vintage treasure now. Thanks for reading, Julie, and I’m happy you enjoyed. BTW, I tried biscuits once. It wasn’t pretty.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. dorannrule says:

    What a truly lovely story and tribute to your Oma and Opa and Tante! My Dad was from Budapest and my Mom from Germany so I have some similar memories. I learned to make Chicken Paprikash at Dad’s side and that recipe has been a favorite down through the generations.


  8. Sue Mayo says:

    Family and food. I don’t know where to start. My mother was the youngest of nine children. Her sister Maggie was the oldest. She was 21 years older than my mother. My mother was 34 years old when I was born and my aunt Maggie was 55 years old. The story begins. Aunt Maggie and her husband Uncle Van owned a farm and many Saturday afternoon all the family would gather at their farm and have the time of our lives. The best food you could imagine. Everything from the farm and garden. Fried chicken, green beans, potato salad, corn on the cob, hot light rolls, blackberry dumplings, peach pie, homemade ice cream. Many of my cousins were so talented with musical instruments and vocal talents that we would go late into the night with song, fun and most of all a full stomach. I feel so blessed to have had a large extended family in my life.


  9. Mary says:

    I loved this post! You look like a teenager in these pictures. You were also very lucky to have a great connection with Elfriede. Concerning food connections…there are so many really. I will always remember Kayleen serving Todd and me warm blackberry cobbler in her backyard at our first get together as new neighbors. It was wonderful, sweet and simple…just like Kayleen! She is my amazing friend to this day! A simple gesture turned into a life long friendship and I am forever thankful for that summer evening on her back porch.


  10. carolwallace says:

    Your best yet, Barbara. Plus I loved the photos. And, yes, cried.


  11. My Proust connection is with kiffels, the Eastern European rolled cookie that my grandmother used to make. I found some a couple of months ago at the Amish market in Philly and had to bring them home to share with my family as I remember my beloved Grandma Jo. I am bound and determined to learn how to make them so I retrieve the memory of her warm and little kitchen where she spent so many of her waking hours. Thanks for sharing the memory of your dear Tante.


    • Oh yes, kiffels are so delicious!! I love the cream cheese pastry and the yummy fillings. Now that you remind me of them, I don’t remember seeing them anywhere in Richmond. Let me know if you do attempt to make them and how they turned out.


  12. markbialczak says:

    This family memory had the very best twists, Barbara: Food triggers of love, genes that travel recognized, and language barriers easily climbed. Thank you for sharing, and pass the pretzel, please.


    • Mark, I think we were simul-reading our respective blogs just now. I was reading about your sibs and the perma-beard which is just too funny. Happy you enjoyed this and looking forward to reading your blog hop thing on Judy’s blog one of these days.


      • markbialczak says:

        Ha! Yes, simul-reading indeed. I was thinking the same thing, Barbara.
        I have planned my link to follow Judy in the blog hop chain for this weekend. You shall see it, Barbara. What a rewarding endeavor.


  13. dorothy says:

    As we age the memory making experiences kick in and it makes u s more aware of how special those times were with relatives or friends. Of course, if food is a part of that memory that’s even better. As a southern girl, whenever there was a gathering there was always LOTS of good cooking..usually with a leftover treat to carry home. In my family certain people will always be remembered for their special cooking skills and special dishes. I’m still looking for mine. We sometimes forget that a simple gesture can be a wonderfull memory for someone.


    • Food is the great unifier, isn’t it? And so many of your recipes are standbys in my kitchen now. I can still remember that hilarious story of you and Berk and your friends sneaking out of the guest house to go get some food when you weren’t fed enough at dinner. That person probably wouldn’t relate to this post at all.


  14. dorothy says:

    And Miss Barbara, I need to remind you of all the good food we’ve enjoyed in your lovely home and how we always leave with such a warm feeling. You see, you have the same talents as your ancestors. Wonderful memories.


  15. Now I know your real name: “Lumpenmensch!” what a funny thing to call a little girl; but from your description it sounds like your aunt really loved and cared for you. This reminds me of all the “names” we called each other as kids and even the nicknames my parents had for us (some not so nice). My youngest brother was “Zwuckel,” my oldest brother was “Sticho”, my middle brother was “Dick” (for “fat one” even though he never was fat). And for the life of me, I can’t remember what they called me (honestly). I think if they called me anything other than my given name, I probably didn’t want to hear it…
    Those rolls look wonderful and remind me of breakfasts at my relatives’ house: always fresh “broetchen”, straight from the bakery each morning! And even if it was a 5 or 8- minute walk, you would walk, never drive there (that would be sacrilege).


    • They called you “Schatzi”, I’m sure. I remember my Swiss friend being a little offended for me by that nickname – she didn’t like it all when I told her – but, of course, a child will be happy with a name when they know it is given with love. As to your observation about walking versus driving, I agree completely. Two years ago in Germany I was struck by how fit the elderly were. I saw an OLD lady, must have been in her mid-80s, riding her bike slowly and carefully, but still riding her bike to the town center market. And I thought marvelous – she is still retaining her balance, her leg strength, her cardio. Such a good thing. Thanks, Annette.


      • After I wrote my comment, another expression came back to me: “Lumpenvieh.” My mother would use that word mostly for animals that would go on her nerves (like a mosquito) but sometimes also in reference to a female whose actions were less than desirable.
        And, yes, I saw many older women on bicycles, keeping in shape. but I was also surprised just how slender a lot of people in midlife still are…staying active, eating food prepared from scratch and none of that genetically modified poison they are selling as “food” in the US!


      • Exactly, Annette! I observed exactly the same thing. No snacking, lots of walking, good healthy food, and human-sized portions in restaurants all serve to keep them fit. Also, I noticed abundant patronage of the lovely cafes for kuchen. It’s not like everybody is on a perpetual diet – they eat with great pleasure but not gluttony.


  16. Margie says:

    A few years ago we spent a few weeks in Germany. I think we ate more pretzels during that trip than we had in the whole rest of our lives! When we got home, we tried making them and though they weren’t quite the … well, same, they were good enough to bring back good memories of a wonderful country.


  17. Diane Ahlberg says:

    What a wonderful experience you had’
    I must admit that I couldn’t get past my most favorite sandwich of all- salami, cucumber, I add cream cheese and on a roll that I only have found in Massachusetts from a “bakery”!
    Ok now I’m hungry-


  18. How beautiful and welcoming your Tante was. She sounds so much like the folks in the Pennsylvania-Deutsche (German) area where I lived until I was nearly 8. Those breads, pretzel sandwich rolls and salami sound scrumptious.

    My trigger food? We had it for breakfast this week at a Greek restaurant of all places: scrapple (Pon Haus ?). Wonderful. It took me right back to my Grammy’s house and the wonderful breakfasts she would make. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Scrapple…I still make it!
    That was a beautiful post…..and I much prefer your German rolls to Proust’s madeleine!

    What I long for is a Belgian pistolet roll….not just for the crisp crust and light dough, but for the associations with my husband’s extended Belgian family who have been more family to him than ever his immediate family have been.


    • Helen, my husband is a bread man in a big way. I think all I would have to do is show him the Google images of the pistolet and he would book a flight immediately! They look very similar to the type of roll that the Portuguese bakeries sold in Massachusetts which everybody called bulkies. When I googled this, I came across Pistolettes also – a Cajun type of bread. Yum!


      • Diane Ahlberg says:

        Ok, here is a call out for anyone living in Massachusetts to overnight Bulkie rolls to Roger and me- thanks Barb, I can almost taste them!! I could go on and on about the things we can’t get here but grew up on
        Wally grew up on Scrapple- must be a Jersey thing
        What a fun post- such memories of times past mothers and grandmothers


      • Ha! I don’t think we should hold our breath on this one, Di.


  20. Droelma says:

    I know I am a few months late, but want to comment, because I feel that otherwise my heart is going to explode in my chest. A great deal is from how you write and how you share, but an even greater one is from what you make me/us remember. That is a great gift. As you might remember from another blog, I am from the extreme Southern Black Forrest and your post made me remember things that during the fourty years I have not lived in Germany any more, are difficult to remember.
    After the death of my parents I lived with my grandmother and once I could be trusted with a bike for transportation and not just for play , I went everyday, except after high snow and bought 4 brötchen ; two for breakfast, one for my school lunch and one ” extra “. Every Friday and Saturday I also was allowed a Laugenbrötchen. I had that with potato salad and a sausage, potato soup with yet another kind of sausage, boiled potatoes and a Frikadelle ( a one portion meat loaf ). Every morning my grandmother touched the brötchen and an humpff” meant all was well and we would have breakfast with those paperthin slices of salami, or cheese and on exceptional days more exceptional cold cuts, except on Monday; that’s when we always had special stuff, because we ate what was left over from Sunday. But always only one slice. Only when I came as grant student to the US did I learn that there were bread rolls with more than just one thing on them. Sometimes she touched the bread and admonished me: ” Du hast rumgepfurzt ” ( literally: you farted around/wasted time ). Sh knew that, because the bread was not quite as warm. I did not fart around a lot.
    On August 29th 1966 I set off to study in the US. That morning my grandmother gave me a bundle, wrapped in one of her good ” Sunday ” napkins. She had made me a few Brötchen to take on the plane to New York and from there to Chicago , because she worried that ” they ” would not feed me well enough. It took half a day to get to Frankfurt and to check in. I ate two of the rolls and yes, they had more than one slice of something ! I threw the other two away at the gate, feeling like a village clod taking her own food on the plane. Reading your post now, just one year short of fifty years later this memory flashes and then still sears my brain, just as it did when someone asked me what one of the things is that make me feel ashamed were. That was thirty or more years ago.
    My grandmother lived until age 96 and until I was 40 . She never made me Brötchen or a sandwich again, but hard boiled eggs and apples.
    I know this post is long, but trips down memory lane, with the prerequisite cup of tea/coffee and wiping tears are not like the hasty trips I take with my dog Millie around the block at 10:30 pm.
    Thanks; as I dig deeper into your writings I enjoy them more each time, even though this enjoyment sometimes hurt…..but it’s a good hurt and that is what I thank you for.


    • Dear Droelma,

      Thank you so much for reading these old posts which I put my heart and soul into and sometimes fear that they just sit here in the archives, never to be read again. It’s very meaningful to read your heartfelt reply to this post because it meant so much to me to put it out there. Droelma, you make reference to me knowing you from another blog, and I apologize but I don’t remember that. But oh, your memories of your grandmother and those broetchen are so touching. We share this in common, I see. Food touches such a chord in our hearts. Thank you so much for reading and commenting.


    • Droelma, I just got your comment explaining that you are not currently writing a blog. Thank you, now I understand. I would be honored to hear from you whenever you feel the urge to do so. Lovely.


      • Droelma says:

        I am slowly reading through all your writings and have enjoyed them all. Otherwise I would have already moved on. Our paths crossed in a blog of someone from the UK who has a blog living in Gibraltar. I enjoyed your comments there and looked for you…..and gladly found you. I have always had the urge to write and have kept journals for about 50 years. Usually two; one about real pragmatic stuff re: work, the up-keep of my home, the planning of a garden or a trip, or finding a vet for my ( until just recently ) five animals, etc. I have no family apart from one dog now, neither of origin nor of my own and fear that in comparison to others there is not much to tell and a blog would just shrivel up and blow away. My other diary is about how I feel and how I handle my inner self as it touches others, self realization, feelings of worthlessness in some areas, pride of accomplishment in others as well as my way through Buddhist discipline and many others . I am glad for your gracious invitation. I dared a few times to comment in other also well written blogs, but it was made clear to me that people without blogs are not worth reading or having a conversation with. Since then I try to tread lightly, because I have discovered that even unimportant words from strangers sometimes hurt .

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, that’s just ridiculous. Whether you have a blog or not, you are taking valuable time out of your life to read mine and therefore I welcome you and your comments. Droelma, it sounds to me like everything you’ve described is perfect fodder for a blog. But if you’re not inspired to do so, then now is not the right time. One day you may just wake up with perfect clarity of how you want to re-approach blogging and will jump back in. Or not. Either way, you are welcome here.


    • What a wonderful story of the everyday turned extraordinary by memory. Wunderbar! Isn’t the German language absolutely marvellous, with words like ‘rumgepfurzt’. I lived in Germany for a couple of years and the one thing I want to bring back every time we visit are Laugenbretzel or the curly version, salty and addictive.


  21. Outlier Babe says:

    As I was reading “lumpenmensch”, I’m thinking “a misshapen person…? What is her aunt calling her?” Ragamuffin is a perfect non-literal but more accurate translation, I’m sure : ) Unless the French really ARE thinking of little cabbages when they call their little ones “mon petit chou”.

    You gave your aunt the gift of a happy heart that I am sure stayed behind when you left. You talk about the strength of genes. Think how it was for her, seeing part of her sister live in you again–young and happy and healthy–and able to hug her again.

    Beautiful post.

    One happy food memory related to my “family”:

    When my brother was young–nine or ten, perhaps–I had just made him tuna salad. We did this with only three ingredients: Miracle Whip, celery, tuna. He took a bite, and said, honestly, that he thought that my tuna salad tasted better than anyone else’s he ever ate anywhere else. And my Aspie self, instead of graciously saying “Thank you”, protested “But you know how I make it: I don’t put any special ingredients in it.” Paul thought about this a moment, and then said: “I think it’s because you make it with love.”

    Liked by 1 person

  22. This is what food is about: memories and connections between the generations and across continents. The first time I ever had a pretzel was on my first trip to America in 1990, a delayed honeymoon trip which started with a visit to my mother-in-law’s penfriend in Charlotte, Virginia. One of the places she took us was something like a county fair. My memory is sketchy, but what I do remember is the wonderful sugar- and cinnamon-covered freshly-cooked pretzel. They sell a pale shadow of them from a stand in the shopping centre near my MIL’s house in England and it’s just as well we don’t visit too often or I would be rounder than I already am. I also have fond memories of German salty bread pretzels and (as I said above) Laugenbretzels – literally ‘tongue pretzels’ from my time in Hamburg. If I go to Germany – which is just up the road, but I don’t drive so it’s ‘so near and yet so far’ – and there are no Bretzels, I feel cheated.


    • Outlier Babe says:

      My Bavarian friend here aches for the pretzels of her childhood. She would understand your pain. The ones sold by the town famous for Octoberfest do not pass. We finally found her heart’s desire in a tiny town in the desert, three hours north of Los Angeles. It has the most delicious German bakery ever, where, in my pre-diet-restricted days, I could have happily eaten myself to death. A. can finally get her real German pretzels again : )


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