Starving for German Culture

Montgomery, John D. "Starving for German Culture." Hays Daily News, 24 June 2001.

We have been formally indoctrinated into the local German culture.

Last weekend, my wife and I were escorted to the Gorham Cafe by some of our Hays friends, Glenn and Dottie Staab and Kevin and Chris Schuckman. Gorham, I have been told repeatedly, is where we would find the best German food.

I say this hesitantly, because a claim such as this, which I am careful to attribute to others, is a declarative one. And it does ignore that the best German food may well be served at home in one of the many German households.

Still, finding that German food that we surely cannot cook in our home has been something of a mission for us. When we moved to Hays a year and a half ago, we expected to find many little German restaurants in the area given the rich Volga-German heritage here.

Alas, a bratwurst and sauerkraut at Oktoberfest is about as good as it has been.

I am at least one-fourth German ­ from my mother´s father ­ so maybe that is why I like German food. Give me a stein of beer, some polka music and some German sausage, and I´m just about in heaven.

Anyway, the scarcity of German establishments hereabouts has been a surprise and a disappointment.

Glenn Staab explains that the void may be because the local Germans eat their noodles and beans, cheese pockets, and potatoes and dumplings at home.

We did enjoy Betty Froelich´s German buffet at Gorham, having heaped our plates with a little of everything and managing to completely stuff ourselves. I would have stuck to the familiar sauerkraut and sausage had we not had our tour guides along who piled their plates high and identified each of the foods.

We finished the night with a detour on the way home to the local watering hole for Catherine, also known as “Katharinenstadt” for the largest and most important of the German colonies on the Volga River in Russia. This establishment would be “Dick´s,” also known as the Petroleum Club, an otherwise unassuming bar but not the kind of place you would just wander into.

As much as Ellis County is known for its Volga-German heritage, this area does little to promote it. Maybe this is a sign of humility, but it contrasts with another group of German villages: the Amana Colonies in eastern Iowa.

The Amana Colonies are a group of seven quaint villages founded just before the Civil War by German-speaking Europeans. They were started to be a communal living utopia. The Amana Colonies now are on the National Register of Historic Places and one of Iowa´s big tourist attractions.

But more so almost than its historical significance, people venture off Interstate-80 to tour the Amana Colonies because of the culture. Present-day Germans continue to prepare the same foods and products and do a good business with tourists.

Wine-making also is an attraction. On our visit to the Amana Colonies, when we lived in Iowa briefly just after our first child was born, one of the activities was stopping in at each winery, sampling the local wine. I can´t say the wines are good ­ unless you´re partial to fruity wines or dandelion wine ­ but this is a fun, shall I say, enhancement of the Amana Colonies tour.

German food is plentiful. But visitors also find plenty to take home: smoked hams, bacon and sausages made from old recipes, and bakeries with an array of breads and pastries. Shopping includes unique Christmas shops, needlework and quilt shops, many quality antique shops, heirloom furniture and clock shops, handcrafted ironwork and baskets, beautiful woolens from Iowa's only woolen mill, and galleries and shops filled with local artwork.

The grouping of Volga-German villages around Hays looks to me a lot like the Amana Colonies: Liebenthal, Catherine, Herzog (Victoria), Munjor, Pfeifer, Schoenchen ­ better names even than Amana, High Amana, Middle Amana, South Amana and so on. I can´t help but think that with the rich German heritage here we have a gold mine and don´t know it.

People love that kind of tourism. Adults do anyway.

The local Germans may not need to go out to eat good German food. But the culturally deprived are starving for it.

John D. Montgomery is editor and publisher of The Hays Daily News.

Reprinted with permission of The Hays Daily News.

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