Last Updated on 11 months by Tim
If you’ve been to Germany you might know that one of the strangest things foreigners encounter in Germany is the tradition among older people to eat bread in the evening. And no, this bread is not served with a soup or stew. It is just bread with some butter, cheese, and sausage.
Depending on the region where you are from in Germany this meal goes by names like ‘Abendbrot’, ‘Vesper’, or ‘Brotzeit’. A lot of people nowadays think that this habit is a tradition deeply entrenched in German culture. After all, Germany is a nation of bread eaters so you shall eat bread all day.
But this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the tradition of eating a cold supper is not bound to the glorious history of the German Empire. It’s the aftermath of the industrial revolution of the early twentieth century.
The tradition of ‘Abendbrot’ dates back to the Weimar Republic
As you might know, after World War I, the German Empire collapsed. What was left behind was a fragile democracy with tons of debt. Nevertheless, the roaring twenties followed and the German economy quickly recovered before the Great Depression destroyed all the progress that was made.
However, what changed drastically during these times is that many farmers flooded the cities and started to work in factories. Women also started to join the workforce during these days so that the tradition of eating lunch together with the family started to die out.
More and more factories started to provide canteens with warm food for their workers so that the main meal of the day for many was now eaten at the workplace. As you might know, the working conditions back in the days have been tough. It was not uncommon to work for more than ten hours a day.
People came back home late from work and didn’t want to put any more energy into preparing a meal at home. This was also discouraged from the government as the population grew rapidly during these times and food was scarce. The answer to feeding a growing population was to mass-produce convenience food. Time spent working in the industry was more valuable than time spent preparing a meal at home. The more money was earned in the industrial sector, the more money was there to feed the population.
Another factor that contributed to eating a lighter supper consisting of bread and spreads was that the factory work wasn’t as taxing physically for many farmers as a whole day on the farm. People felt that it was unnecessary to have a big meal for dinner as they were used to having on the farm.
How the Nazis influenced Germany’s idea of a healthy diet
World War II and its food rationing encouraged an even more restrictive and simpler way of eating. One big part of the Nazi propaganda was to promote traditional German soups like the Gaisburger Marsch. They were to be eaten on One-Pot-Sundays to nourish the population and to give a sense of national identity. If you’ve ever wondered why there is a Swabian soup called ‘March of Gaisburg’ then you know the reason for its strange name now. The dish has existed long before Hitler rose to power but it was popularized all over Germany by the Nazis under this strange name.
The Nazis contributed a lot to what we now call German food culture. They popularized dense whole-grain bread all over Germany. Prior to the Third Reich, the majority of Germans preferred airy and light white bread, just like almost every other country in the world. Whole grain bread was seen as a product for peasants who couldn’t afford to eat white bread. However, Nazi propaganda was a huge success in promoting simple poor man’s foods all over the country.
In general, a healthy diet for the population was one of the most important goals of Nazi propaganda. Small farmers were massively supported by the government and an effort was made to popularize a seasonal and highly regional diet. Next to concentration camps, prisoners had to plant herb gardens.
Drugs like alcohol and cigarettes were frowned upon and a lot of research went into the effects of a vegetarian diet. Some Auschwitz prisoners were used in experiments to evaluate if vegetarian sausages can nourish the body as well as traditional meat sausages.
Of course, after the Third Reich was defeated, the German population didn’t drastically change. It was still the same people living in Germany as before the war. A lot of former government officials still kept their positions in post-war Germany, especially in the agrarian field. That’s why the Nazi propaganda about nutrition never died out and was still promoted in the post-war years until today.
The tradition of eating ‘Abendbrot’ is about to die out
Nowadays, almost 100 years after the invention of the ‘Abendbrot’, this short-lived German tradition is about to slowly disappear. The warm supper, which has been the norm for most of German history, is making a comeback. It’s often the only meal that families enjoy together throughout the day.
And I have to say, there’s little reason for Southern Germans to be nostalgic about it. The whole idea of eating just cold bread for dinner originally came from Northern Germany. As you might know, Prussian people weren’t known to be hedonists. They had a rather simple eating culture compared to the Southern German states with their proximity to France and Italy.
The most famous food invented by the Northern Germans is buttered bread. It was deemed unpalatable by Southern Germans for a very long time. That is because of the habit of Northern Europeans to salt their butter. In Southern Germany, butter is always unsalted. The traditional way to prolong the shelf life was to clarify the butter which is still my frying fat of choice. It tastes good, is very cheap in Germany, and it doesn’t burn.
However, clarified butter isn’t really suitable as a spread for bread. It was only after cultured butter took off in Europe that Southern Germans started to eat buttered bread. And yes, the Northern Germans were right, there’s hardly anything better than fresh butter on bread. But salting butter is still a big no-no in Southern Germany.
The traditional Swabian dinner
So what did Swabians traditionally eat for dinner if it wasn’t bread? Well, the answer won’t excite you. The most common breakfast and dinner meal in Swabia was a dish called flour soup (‘Mehlsuppe’). It’s exactly what it sounds like. Flour cooked in water or broth until thick and gelatinized. More sophisticated versions include onions, soup vegetables, bone marrow, and herbs. Bread was once a luxury good that not everyone could afford.
As you might’ve guessed, the flour soup hasn’t made a comeback in Swabian cuisine. It’s still there but far from everyday food. Especially the version with semolina tastes excellent. However, nowadays, in our age of abundance, we can eat whatever warm meal we desire. May it be Swabian, Italian, Mexican, or Chinese.
Regardless of that, I’m sure that the traditional ‘Abendbrot’ will never completely disappear. It won’t be an everyday meal. But just like flour soup, it will remain a part of the German food repertoire. And that is a good thing. Without letting go of the old, there’s no place for the new.
German cuisine has reinvented itself many times and every time it got a bit more diverse and tastier. We don’t cook like 50 years ago anymore. Our sauces nowadays are lighter, we use more fresh rather than preserved produce, and we have access to a much wider variety of seasonings. And honestly, I love modern takes on German traditional foods. There’s no reason you can’t put mango in your red cabbage instead of apple.