Shortly after my wife and I moved to Berlin last January, we came upon FeinBäckerie, an old bakery that had been turned into a restaurant, an unassuming local joint with regulars tippling at the bar. Along the dining room wall was a large, black iron door with an elaborate system of latches and hinges—the oven from FeinBäckerie's days in the bread trade. I glanced at the menu and ordered a Wiener schnitzel. As we waited, someone beyond the wall began pounding a countertop. The sound, rapid, loud and regular, transported me—to the Wiener schnitzels my grandmother used to make every Christmas.
My grandmother, Erica Matschnigg, was born in 1904 and brought up in Vienna by Socialist parents with forward-thinking notions about much more than politics. They didn't encourage her to learn the skills that bourgeois Austrian girls typically busied themselves acquiring: housekeeping, sewing, drawing, piano playing and, especially, cooking. To the Matschniggs, food was nothing more than human fuel and elevating its importance marked the sort of philistinism that discouraged young women from higher pursuits. So it was that my grandmother became the rare girl to attend a Gymnasium, an Austrian high school; she compensated for being the only girl in her class by becoming the best student.
The worst student was the new boy. Alexander Gerschenkron had fled the Russian Revolution in 1920; he arrived in Vienna speaking not a word of German. Even after he began to learn the language, school remained a challenge, but he drew inspiration from his desk mate, a certain Latin whiz with ash blond tresses braided in the style of Goethe's Gretchen. She was not as taken with him; for two years she showed "the Russian" only contempt. Yet by 1924, when my grandparents entered the University of Vienna, they were a couple. Four years later, when the civil registry official came to the portion of the marriage ceremony where it was customary to offer hopes "for a fruitful union," he cast his eyes on the bride's bulging midriff, and tactfully refrained.
Related: Christmas Appetizers
They had two children by March 1938, the month the Germans occupied the city. The family fled to America and, after many tribulations, ended up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There the former Gymnasium dunce, became a renowned Harvard economist, a formidable intellectual who was also offered chairs in Italian literature and Slavic studies. A genuine polymath, he feuded with Vladimir Nabokov and John Kenneth Galbraith, played chess with Marcel Duchamp and maintained a close friendship with Isaiah Berlin.
But to me he was just the delightful fellow who seated his grandchildren on Hoxie and Moxie—his knees—and told us lengthy stories about two bad children named Hooey and Mooey. My grandmother was of sterner mien: a somewhat mirthless woman who liked serious European books and music. She also ran the house and prepared the meals, in a way that would have won the approval of her parents: She was an awful cook.
If my grandfather was a classic immigrant success story, my grandmother represented the darker side of dislocation: a refugee who never put Austria behind her. Her closet was full of dirndls, which she wore long after they ceased to flatter her figure. English didn't suit her either—surprising in a grammar-and-syntax maven who knew more than a dozen languages. And she never lost her preference for Austrian food. "I always feel better when I eat it," she said. When asked why she didn't cook it more, she said, "I wasn't brought up to do that."
Christmas was something else, though. Austrians are passionate about Christmas—especially Christmas Eve. My grandmother would spend weeks in preparation. From Vienna she ordered handmade candies, which she wrapped in colorful Viennese tissue paper and hung from the branches of the Christmas tree, and slender white Christmas candles, which went into special tin holders affixed to the boughs. The candles were never lit until after dark on Christmas Eve. We would wait outside the living room until a little bell was rung, then rush in near that glowing tree and sing the Austrian Christmas songs my grandmother had taught us. Finally, in what was always a lengthy ceremony, we opened the presents. My grandmother used a tiny pair of sewing scissors to slowly snip the tape binding the wrapping paper, purposely drawing out the process until we were all squirming in vexation. Afterward she disappeared into the kitchen, and soon the house reverberated with a steady pounding that cheered us right up. She was making the Christmas Wiener schnitzel.
Wiener schnitzel (literally, Viennese slice) is an Austrian-style breaded veal cutlet eaten across the Teutonic world. Germans celebrate it both for its savoriness and for the way it accommodates something essential in the German sensibility: the predilection for Gründlichkeit—rules, propriety, thoroughness. Wiener schnitzel is a little lesson in the value of precision. Preparing it requires three bowls: one filled with flour, a second with eggs and a third with bread crumbs. The cutlets are consecutively dipped into each, fried in butter and then served with a garnish of lemon, anchovy and capers, plus a sprig of parsley, beside a neat pile of cumin-roasted potatoes.
It sounds so simple. And yet Wiener schnitzel is almost invariably served in a rendition with scant resemblance to this ideal. A proper one must be almost impossibly wide and thin—a sprawling sheet of golden brown that covers your entire plate. To achieve these proportions, the cook uses a wooden hammer, beating the veal on both sides and flattening it into near translucence. Too many cooks today are willing to spare their arms and spoil the schnitzel—but not my grandmother.
Once she cried "Num, num!" (yum, yum) and we were finally in our places, out she came bearing an enormous platter piled high with golden Wiener schnitzels. They were beyond tasty; they attained the contrasting textures—a seared crisp surface clasping a succulent interior—that are the essence of schnitzel. Because the meat was pressed so thin, the flavor of the eggs and the bread crumbs suffused the entire cutlet. I always kept eating long after I was full: Each morsel was so luscious, and besides, it was a long time until next Christmas. One thing I never asked myself, though, was how such a terrible cook could excel just once a year. Never, that is, until that evening in Berlin.
My grandmother died in 1980, and I rarely tasted Wiener schnitzel afterward. At the time, this seemed intuitive: No more grandmother, no more schnitzel. But that was the wrong way to think about it. My family merely enjoyed schnitzel. But for her it took on such importance that once a year she set aside her aversion to cooking and prepared a labor-intensive meal to perfection. The effort was worth it to her, because the meal not only took her back to Austria, it allowed her to take the rest of us along with her. That she prepared so many schnitzels prolonged the meal in the same way her deliberate way of unwrapping gifts had prolonged the earlier festivities. She wanted Christmas to last and last.
And from my vantage that night in Berlin, it had. My grandmother had used the food of her childhood to preserve something larger from it, so that now, when her grandson came to her part of the world, he could recognize a culture full of fine things, and prize it as she had.
Nicholas Dawidoff is the author of three books, including The Fly Swatter: How My Grandfather Made His Way in the World.