Hamburger Labskous at Oberhafen-Kantine

John Hamburg IIIOberhafen-Kantine and its lurching face under the railroad. Photo: the author.

There is a reason we go to places and in those reasons are vestiges of other people, from historical time as well as the present, people we know as well as people we don’t know at all. I went to Hamburg to see my sister, who was taking part in an art exhibition with a number of other artists whose work I admire, some of whom I knew personally while others were historical figures, mere reputations, strangers known only from their artistic output: images on pages.

I got off the train and walked through the busy lunchtime city. The clouds were brooding and the sense of an ancient port city was foretold more in the grandeur of the buildings, the Hanseatic rapture of tall custom houses of yore than any sense of the sea which is in fact quite a bit further north along the Elbe. Hamburg is a kind of archipelago that’s cut with sullen canals and rivers, it is an industrious Venice of Germanic hard graft.

Once I had located my sister we walked to a restaurant that was recommended to her not far from where we met overlooking the glass fronted headquarters of Der Spiegel. Not knowing the city I preceded to suspect that we were walking in the wrong direction in the hesitant certainty of the perfectly ignorant: new to a city and hungry, I’m more often than not a paragon of impatience that is both eager to eat anything that seems half way edible but also extremely picky. This is not, it should go without saying, an ideal state for good company. I questioned the route out loud: it seemed we were leaving the city behind altogether, going down a dead end, the houses dropping away and the sense of a forsaken industrial harbour rising up along with weeds and overgrown growth of anonymous city flora. Overhead trains slowed down or sped up depending on their relation to the central station which was just a couple hundred meters further down the track, girders growing out of the brick work and carrying their weight.

We crossed the Oberhafen bridge, which was deserted, the train track running atop of it, and sure enough there was our destination: Oberhafen-Kantine, a quaint little boat house perched precariously, right atop the canal where the bridge met land. There was nobody sitting outside as it had been raining but inside was full – it wouldn’t take much, it’s a small space – so we opted to dry a few seats and sit outside and soon we were given menus. We started to go through the menu, translating and unpacking the options, and then I saw it: Labskaus traditionell.

As I hinted above, a lot of these articles are often written having gone to various places and then when there eating something and in turn writing about both the food and the place, writing about the place through the food, as it were. And this isn’t all that surprising as food is not only how we navigate a foreign place it is also for many people, certainly for myself, one of the salient differences from being away from home and as such is as good as any other foundation to remember having been anywhere at all. But this is perhaps a flawed way of thinking, a fundamentally wrong approach.

I knew labskaus, I said pointing at the menu. It’s sailor’s stew. I knew it from when I lived in Norway. I knew it from when I was in Liverpool, when I was researching another article. It’s where Liverpudlian Scousers get their name. I would have the labskaus I told the waiter.

Only when we got our dishes it was decidedly not what I was expecting in my head, and quietly showed as much I suspect: I was expecting what I had enjoyed almost a decade before in Norway: a wet, brownish stew with lumps of meat in it. Indeed, Irish stew is not that much different but this was altogether something else. First there was a fried egg on top, beside which was a rollsmop (herring) and some beetroot. These sat on top of a purple mound of what looked like tuna fish salad but is in fact beef purred with potato and beetroot. As they say in Thailand: same same but different. This was a doubling of history brought about by the variation of time and place: north Germany – Hamburg, Bremen – have their own distinct take on the sailor’s stew.

John HamburgPhoto: the author

Norwegian lapskaus; Liverpudlian scouse; Swedish lapskojs; Danish skipperlabskovs; north American hash; Welsh cawl or lobsgows; Irish stew. The same basic idea prevails: sailors boiled meat, beef or lamb, with onions (or carrots or potatoes, depending) and used ship’s biscuits to thicken the resulting stew. But in north Germany they went in a different direction and introduced the funky beetroot and pickled gherkin with that definite extra of a fried egg thrown on top to truly mark this out as a distinct cousin in this Hanseatic lineage.

john hamburgIIThat moment when what you think you ordered is in fact something totally else. Photo: Katie Holten

There was a lot that I didn’t know during that lunch. I just prattled on about Netflix shows, I was telling my sister about how Aziz Ansari goes to Italy in the second season of Master of None (she didn’t know the show) and that the restaurant that features, Osteria Francescana, apparently the best restaurant in the world, features in the very first episode of the other Netflix series Chef’s Table (which I was currently addicted to watching and no doubt deserves its own article). All I could have known then with any certainly was that the Oberhafen-Kantine was just a place, the first place I visited in a town I was visiting for the first time. But the cute little house had a history, and like so much in the country what made it remarkable wasn’t that it should have existed, there were over twenty such little café kantines in the harbour of Hamburg back in the day, what was extraordinary was that it should have survived so long. Indeed it was the last man standing, it sits lobsided and seemingly alone, on the edge of the vast urban development Hafen City that sprawls to the west. It is tilted at an incredible angle and I felt drunk just walking within its sloping walls.

I think of the artists who I know only from reputation; some hours later I get to move through the Kunsthalle and take in their works, I get to experience them face to face and enjoy the agitated space of proximity, the experience of perception that presence makes unique and which boasts a quality digital or print reproductions lack. But I also think now all those chefs that I’ve spent time with on TV: like most other people watching this popular Netflix series, the world renowned chefs of Chef’s Table are artists whose work we will never fully appreciate but only know from hearsay, via cheap visual reproduction (online streaming) and in this I find a great sadness of the contemporary acquisition of knowledge about what is possible in the world. I can’t help but think that what in a younger person would only give burning fuel to the desire to set out and experience the world (taste it, lick it, suck on the fruits as they present themselves) for me at that moment, trying to navigate the unexpected difference of the food on my plate to my (ignorant) expectation, explaining how Aziz Ansari goes to Osteria Francescana in one show, only for me to get a behind the scenes history of it in another, how such Michelin star meals are beyond my immediate means and capabilities, well all this gave me only a wearied sadness, a resignation that the trains as they came and went behind me weren’t any that I would alight and travel to the end of their line, that Hamburg would remain largely unseen, untasted, unheard by me (leaving as I was already that evening) and that largely the moment of sitting there with my sister could just as easily, if I let it, pass into the forgotten. It was enough to make me want to never return to Hamburg for fear of erasing this lunch altogether. Experience suddenly seemed very precious and fleeting, something that needed protection from the winds of time before it was blown out completely, a dinner quickly wolfed down.

Then a curious thing happened: when researching this article I learn that I have in fact been in Oberhafen-Kantine before, I had walked through its little space years previously in a case of uncanny doubling: artist Thorsten Passfeld had built a 1:1 replica of the little example of north German Klinker expressionism and dropped it in the back car park of the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. This was around seven years ago during the autumn of 2010. The details of the time are all gone: who I was with, the exhibitions and artists in the galleries that were located at the time in the area (all since moved toward Potsdamer Strasse or elsewhere), how I was feeling and how the rest of the evening turned out, all have evaporated with time – the only thing I know was that I was looking to go to the toilet, and I don’t think they had any. Today, this ersatz copy can be found in Kruezberg as a curiosity imbiss, no doubt full of tourists or indifferent Berliners who couldn’t give a toss about its origins or Anita Haendel, the daughter of the first owner who worked there an incredible 72 years, from the age of 12 to 94, dying only in 1997. I do know that in the original in Hamburg, the toilet today is located next door in an adjacent building. But I definitely remember entering this wooden kunstwerk double. What this means I do not exactly know, other than the fact that what we think we do and do not know is never certain, never steadfast.

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