In fact, during the nineteenth century German food was America's premier immigrant cuisine -- helped in no small part by the German community's contributions to beer making. After the Civil War, writes food historian John Mariani, beer "began to outstrip hard liquor in consumption." But Italian cuisine eclipsed German food in popularity at the turn of the century. And the combination of anti-German sentiment during the two world wars, the death of the local brewing industry (Prohibition didn't help matters) and the perception of German food as heavy and fattening proved to be, for Kansas City's German restaurants, a no-win battle of the bulge.
Only two German restaurants remain in the metropolitan area today: the forty-year-old Berliner Bear in Waldo and the twelve-year-old Rheinland Restaurant in downtown Independence.
Among fans of German cuisine, there's some debate about which of the two restaurants is more authentisch. "The Rheinland isn't a real German restaurant," a Berliner Bear devotee once snapped at me. "They have cheeseburgers on their menu!"
I didn't dare add -- lest he go blitzkrieg on me -- that the Rheinland also serves something called "Hawaiian toast" at lunch (German ham, Swiss cheese and pineapple).
Still, I must confess my fondness for the Rheinland, the quaint little dining room run by German-born Heinz and Rosie Heinzelmann. It looks as though it were decorated by a tidy little grandmother with a great fondness for the color green (the vinyl tablecloths, the Tiffany-style lamps, the pressed tin ceiling, the wallpaper), who also loves lace curtains and polka music that sounds piped in from a Victrola.
The restaurant is as charming and unsophisticated as any small-town tea room, down to the wicker basket of rolls from the bakery at Hy-Vee and a metal sherbet dish with foil-wrapped pats of butter. Cosmopolitan types can order imported beer or a glass of wine, but the teetotalers prefer the house "mocktail": sparkling apple cider and Sprite over ice in a tall beer glass.
And yes, the fare does lean toward heavy fried schnitzels with potatoes and smoked pork chops. But don't fret about those calories! One of the restaurant's employees sells a diet supplement and parks her car near the restaurant's entrance -- the before and after photographs of herself are taped to one of the car windows.
I could have used an appetite suppressant or two on the Wednesday night I insisted on a side order of potato pancakes (which the Rheinland serves only on Wednesdays) with my rouladen, a thinly sliced strip of roast rolled around chopped bacon, Dijon mustard and dill pickles. It had already come with a generous mound of hot, chewy spaetzle, little flour dumplings boiled and given a quick pan-frying before being served with the dinner entrées. That golden, crusty potato pancake, meanwhile, almost engulfed a dinner plate on its own.
"Watch out for the toothpick in there, ya hear? It's right in the middle of the roulade," warned the good-natured waitress, who had a thick Southern accent. When I'd asked about the house dressing for the salad, she had explained that it was "a combination of everything, with a little whipping cream and a lot of deel." Deel? "Like deel pickles," she said, adding that she was "from West Virginia and not Germany."
"It's like a TV movie," my friend Bob said as he went to work on that night's dinner special, a thick slab of gravy-covered meatloaf. "The Coal Miner's Daughter in Old Heidelberg."
How disappointed we were to find the young West Virginian gone on our return visit a few days later. "She was an excellent waitress," explained Gloria Garate, the restaurant's comanager (along with the diet lady). "But, you know...."
Bob and my friend Karen nodded sympathetically. Who cared? I was starving. I shoved a buttered roll in my mouth, then gestured at the German salad plate on the menu. I needed someone to bring me food!
Out it came, a salad "medley" without any visual flair but happily homespun: a little mound of bean salad in a vinegary dressing, cucumber slices in deel dressing, a pile of iceberg lettuce, a cold potato salad and, in a little glass cup, a scoop of steaming, pucker-inducing sauerkraut.
I followed this with an extraordinary cup of soup filled with nontraditional vegetables (Brussels sprouts, wax beans) and surprisingly exotic spices such as curry, nutmeg and savory. I tend to think of German food as dull, so I was surprised by the fiery punch of the zigeunerschnitzel (gypsy schnitzel), an ordinary breaded veal cutlet draped in a deliciously glossy cloak of simmered onions and red and green peppers.
Karen dug into her sauerbraten, a luscious example of the tender roast typically made by marinating beef in a sweet-sour marinade, then simmering it in the same clove-scented sauce.
Bob, however, had pouted when I told him he couldn't have a hamburger ("But it's called a German-style burger," he whined). He ordered the cordon bleu chicken instead. He pouted more when his chicken breast came wrapped with a thin, pink sheet of German ham and gooey melted Swiss cheese and armored -- not breaded -- in a thick coat of ... asbestos?
Alas, things only got worse for Bob when it was time for dessert. Karen had already decided to have the house-made apple strudel with ice cream. Having spotted empty cake boxes near the refrigerated dessert case, I cross-examined Gloria: "You don't make your cakes here, do you?"
"The pies come from Golden Boy," she said candidly. "And so do the Black Forest cake and the German chocolate cake. But we do make our own bread pudding. It's from my grandmother's recipe."
Bob ignored my kick under the table and ordered a wedge of German chocolate cake. I had already taken a gander at the stuff in the dessert case, so I suspected the thickly frosted layer cake would taste as dry as it looked. It did, and Bob pouted anew.
Karen, however, was ecstatic over the flaky curl of pastry wrapped around tender, cinnamon-dusted apples, all of it floating under a whipped-cream cloud. And Grandma Minnie's bread pudding -- made from the leftover Hy-Vee rolls -- was moist and rich with custard and raisins.
There is an outdoor biergarten at the back of the restaurant, but Gloria told me that it's rarely used unless there's some big doing in Independence, like Santa-Cali-Gon Days. Usually, though, festive German traditions are as hard to find these days as an authentisch German restaurant.