First Bouillon, Then Meat with Potatoes

Kristen Ann Ehrenberger's picture

A What is a Recipe? contribution by Kristen Ann Ehrenberger, MD PhD (Internal Medicine-Pediatrics, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center)

 

Dinner Menu
Soup or bouillon
50g meat (2 oz.)
100g potatoes (1/4 lb)
Dessert  

 

“If someone gave me the task of creating a menu that ‘lasts’ the longest,” wrote physiologist Otto Cohnheim Kestner in 1919, “[meaning one that] possesses the highest satiety value, I would answer: first bouillon, then meat with potatoes or bread, then something sweet. That is the conventional peacetime midday meal! Appetite and satiation have guided us wonderfully.”[1]

 

From the start of World War I (1914-1918) until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles (June 19, 1919), Central Europeans frequently went hungry due to the effects of the Allied trade embargo. Historian Avner Offer has estimated that most Germans received enough calories from rations, the black market, and home food production, but that the paucity of meat and fats left them feeling woefully underfed.[2] Before the war, scientific and social debates about what constituted a healthy diet often revolved around the appropriate number of calories, especially from animal products. Mainstream nutritionists favored an omnivorous diet, alternative nutritionists argued that they could be just as fit without so much meat, and trade unionists clamored for higher wages so that workers could afford a “proper,” “civilized” diet with meat on Sundays (and maybe during the week).

After the war, as head of the Physiological Institute at Hamburg-Eppendorf, Kestner (1873-1953) tackled the biological and political question of satiety. By experimenting on dogs with various combinations of nutrients in larger or smaller quantities, he found that meat was best digested in the acidic environment of the stomach, but that starches were broken down in the alkaline small intestine. These processes happened sequentially, thereby delaying the movement of the meal through the gastrointestinal tract and increasing its “satiety value.” While an aromatic first course of soup stimulated the secretion of gastric juices, the sugar in a dessert signaled to the body that the meal was over and digestion should commence. Kestner was not only contributing to understandings of digestive physiology; he was also making a plea for the international community to normalize trade relations so that Germans could resume eating their familiar, pre-war diet, which he had just proven in the laboratory to be a scientific as well as a cultural norm. He had effectively rationalized his German notion of what constituted a meal, both in terms of quantifiable amounts and in terms of physiological concepts. Science is always culture-bound and political, but rarely so much as during a crisis.

I know this menu is a recipe because it combines food items with measurements and has a common, expected outcome: a traditional Central European dinner (typically eaten at midday). It is one of my favorite items from my research on late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German nutrition, because of a personal incident that raised my awareness of on-going food habits in this part of the world. When I traveled in Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic on a choir tour in 2012, I was simultaneously disappointed and secretly delighted to discover a monotonous pattern to the restaurant dinners to which we were treated each night: soup, then meat and a starch, followed by dessert. To my dismay as a health-conscious American, what vegetables there were appeared as garnish rather than as part of the meal. The apogee of this (in my mind) unhealthy pattern was the dinner to which a famous Viennese singer treated us at her home: soup, followed by lasagna, chicken tetrazzini, gumbo, and scalloped potatoes, then dessert. When I relayed this encounter later to my (American) mother-in-law, she shared that her (Austrian) mother-in-law believed that a proper large meal of the kind our hostess served us should include “three meats and a starch.” That kind of largesse would have been practically unthinkable when Kestner was writing, but it is an understandable cultural (if not scientific) reaction to the years of privation visited by war and blockade.

 


[1] Otto Kestner, “Der Sättigungswert der Nahrung,” Deutsche Medizinische Wochenschrift 45, no. 10 (13 March 1919): 285-287, 287.

[2] Offer, Avner. The First World War: An Agrarian Interpretation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).