Culinary Time Travel in Retirement Homes

Google knows everything? You won’t find your grandmother’s favorite recipe there! The culinary knowledge of our grandparents is hidden somewhere else – in our country’s retirement homes. Who could be a better guide in matters of cooking than people who haven’t done anything else for their entire lives, who cooked simply and simply cooked, those who came up with something tasty without a recipe, using only what was there, those who always cooked regionally and seasonally.

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What is happening with this knowledge in retirement homes? At the moment not much. Here food is perceived as a cost factor. A few weeks ago, Jürgen, who had been photographing his miserable meals at the home, caused a stir on Facebook. Food is often put on the back-burner, literally. Residents are merely fed; whereas food possesses a particular emotionality for the elderly. Food is memory. Of barefoot sauerkraut stomping, snacking on warm potatoes from the pig trough. Of the pot-roast that was better than your mother-in-law’s.

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“Give the elderly back their right to the cooking spoon,” Manuela Rehn is demanding. For her book project, with Jörg Reuter, Cathrin Brandes and Caro Hoene, Wir haben einfach gekocht. Kulinarische Erinnerungen, (We Cooked Simply: Culinary Memories – CFL translation) she set out on a journey to retirement homes throughout Germany. In three months they visited 12 homes with 100 recipes in tow to revive bygone cooking. From classics such as Rouladen to regional dishes such as Maultaschen (German ravioli) and local specialties such as Pfitzauf (Swabian pastry), a marvelous book celebrating eating and cooking together is (almost) hot off the presses. The images of the seniors included contradict the prevailing image we have of the elderly in retirement homes. Here we see people cooking and eating with pleasure, feeling needed and enjoying community. Food goes far beyond mere sustenance.

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Manuela Rehn and her team always took the time to meet the residents of the homes, and based on their conversations and memories they chose three recipes they then cooked and ate together in a small group – a break from the daily routine in the home and its predominantly pragmatic food culture. Rehn explained her desire to spark a social and political debate with these beautiful images and the happiness radiated by the old women and one old man in them. A debate that moves away from seeing food in retirement homes as a mere cost factor. From home to home there are huge differences. Rehn told of being in some homes where she met people very involved in the kitchen, where the elderly could sometimes even cook as well. Such integration in the kitchen is achievable by very simple means, which the book attempts to demonstrate.

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A woman from Swabia recounted a memory of Sauerbraten (German pot-roast) and her mother-in-law. When her mother-in-law, very talented in the kitchen, was lying in the hospital she cooked for the men of the family who then raved about her pot-roast during hospital visits. After which her mother-in-law had a serious word with her: “Girls, a bit of advice. Never cook better than your mother-in-law. And if you can, don’t show it.”

Rehn’s favorite food memory are her grandmother’s Quarkkeulchen (sweet curd and potato fritters). She makes them, too, without a recipe. She has it in her from watching grandma all those years.

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Wir haben einfach gekocht. Kulinarische Erinnerungen will be released in October 2015 by Umschau Verlag. The book is a non-profit project. All proceeds go to the developing these ideas further, for example to the continuing education of kitchen managers in retirement homes.

Manuela Rhen and Jörg Reuter run Vom Einfachen das Gute in Berlin, a small grocery store and their passionate hobby.

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