MY BERLIN KITCHEN: A LOVE STORY (WITH RECIPES)
By Luisa Weiss
Viking, $26.95, 293 pages
What do you do “when you grow up all mishmashed,” born in West Berlin of an American Jewish father and an Italian mother, living part of the time in Brookline, Mass., and partly in Berlin? Why, you retreat to the kitchen to re-create the atmosphere of the place in which you were happiest.
The “you” in this case is Luisa Weiss, the creator of the Wednesday Chef blog and author of a charming memoir, “My Berlin Kitchen,” subtitled “A Love Story (with Recipes).” And the place in which she was — and is — happiest is Berlin, now no longer “West,” but just Berlin.
Ms. Weiss‘ father is a mathematician who met her mother, a translator, while they were both studying in Austria. They moved to Berlin, where Luisa — her name worked in all three languages, English, Italian and German — was born in 1977. Luisa’s “de facto nanny” during her early years was a family friend, Joan Klakow, an American expatriate married to a German. Luisa “loved the way [Joan and Dietrich‘s] apartment smelled, like cinnamon and warmth. “[L]ife at Joanie and Dietrich’s was safe and full of life.”
Luisa was still a tiny child when her parents separated and her father returned to Massachusetts, taking his daughter with him. Why Luisa did not stay in Berlin with her mother, rather than moving to the United States, is never explained. She missed her mother, but she loved her father and shared good times with him.
Summers and winter school holidays were spent with her mother in Berlin and in Italy, “flying diligently back and forth over the ocean learning to steel [myself] for so many goodbyes that it sometimes felt like [my] chest would explode.” In Brookline, she “never stopped thinking of Berlin’s old apartment buildings with their faded facades, its overgrown parks with sun-bleached grass, the smell of onions browning in butter wafting out of a neighbor’s window at lunchtime, the cobblestone streets that made the car rumble when [you] drove down them.”
High school was spent in Berlin and college in the United States, with graduate studies in Paris, where she made American friends and met Max Beuchel, a German student who became her first love. Although enchanted by the City of Light, Paris was not a city where Luisa wished to live. Paris was followed by New York, where she began her professional life.
As she grew up, “moving around from Berlin to Boston to Paris to New York [I] discovered that cooking was the most reliable way to feel less alone. Distance means nothing when your kitchen smells like home.” And “home” always seemed to be Berlin. Baking, then cooking, had been a fascination since childhood.
The years in New York were exciting, happy and productive. Along with being a successful editor of cookbooks, she started a food blog, the Wednesday Chef, in which she discussed not only her cooking attempts and successes, but chatted with her readers about her life. The blog was a great success and led, eventually, to the book. During these happy and fruitful New York years, she made friends and became engaged. But there was always something tugging at her emotions, filling her thoughts and telling her that this was not the right place for her.
She turned her back on New York, her job, her friends and her fiance and moved to Berlin. There, she got in touch with Max, who was now also living in Berlin. Old romances never really die, and in this case, blossomed into true love and eventually a wonderfully romantic wedding in Italy. Today, she is happily ensconced in a sunny apartment with her beloved Max and her baby son.
Ms. Weiss has a gift for re-creating in her reader not only the visual perception of the cities in which she lived, but also the atmosphere of each place from “linden-scented” Berlin to the peaceful Italian countryside and bustling family life of summer holidays, the excitement and energy of Manhattan and the rapturous beauty of Paris. Her description of her childhood Christmases in Germany tugged at my own early memories of German Christmases when trees were decorated “secretly on Dec. 23” and children were not permitted to enter the “Christmas room” until after the first star came out on Christmas Eve.
“My Berlin Kitchen” is a delightful memoir, written in a straightforward, slightly self-deprecating style, much as Ms. Weiss wrote her Wednesday Chef blog. The book’s recipes are far from haute cuisine; they reflect the homey atmosphere of the author’s young years. It is their very simplicity wherein lies their charm. Whether a recipe for German Christmas cookies or spiced plum butter, the one-dish Depression Stew that Ms. Weiss cooked in Paris whenever she felt blue, her Italian grandmother’s braised artichokes and potatoes, or the tomato sauce her father made for her to share across their Brookline table, these are the recipes of her heart. Clearly, it is the memory of Joan’s cinnamon-scented kitchen, and the love of her then-intact family that make Berlin the wellspring of the yearning for the city of her youth.
Ms. Weiss sympathizes with her German neighbors and friends, recognizing their suffering in the aftermath of World War II, but without the emotional conflict her Jewish heritage might suggest. Time moves on, and Ms. Weiss was not born until more than 30 years after the end of the war. For her, as it is for all of her generation, the connection is remote, if it exists at all.
“My Berlin Kitchen” is a light hearted, charming tale of the search of a young woman for her identity and place in the world. The narrative voice is fresh, full of fun and very personal. As she does in her blog, Ms. Weiss connects with her readers and offers them an insight into her journey that began and ended in the warmth of a Berlin kitchen.
Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.
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