Dec 122018
 

Today is the birthday (1913) of James Cleveland “Jesse” Owens (September 12, 1913 – March 31, 1980) who was a US track and field athlete and four-time Olympic gold medalist in the 1936 Games. He is often remembered as the African-American athlete who embarrassed Hitler at the Berlin Games, and you frequently see movie clips of Hitler leaving the stadium, appearing to show that he was disgusted to have his Aryan race athletes defeated by a definitively non-Aryan. This is a complete misrepresentation. In fact, Hitler shook hands with Owens and congratulated him, as Owens himself recalls (and there was purportedly a photo of them shaking hands that has since disappeared). FDR, on the other hand, refused to meet with Owens after the Games, and never congratulated him. Indeed, Owens’ life in the US after the Games was extremely hard.

Owens was the youngest of ten children, three girls and seven boys, born to Henry Cleveland Owens (a sharecropper) and Mary Emma Fitzgerald in Oakville, Alabama. J.C., as he was called, was 9 years old when the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, for better opportunities, as part of the Great Migration, when 1.5 million African Americans left the segregated South. When his new teacher asked his name (to enter in her roll book), he said “J.C.”, but because of his strong Southern accent, she thought he said “Jesse”. The name stuck, and he was known as Jesse Owens for the rest of his life.

As a youth, Owens took different jobs in his spare time: he delivered groceries, loaded freight cars and worked in a shoe repair shop while his father and older brother worked at a steel mill. During this period, Owens realized that he had a passion for running. Throughout his life, Owens attributed the success of his athletic career to the encouragement of Charles Riley, his junior high school track coach at Fairmount Junior High School. Since Owens worked in a shoe repair shop after school, Riley allowed him to practice before school instead.

Owens first came to national attention when he was a student of East Technical High School in Cleveland; he equaled the world record of 9.4 seconds in the 100-yards (91 m) and long-jumped 24 feet 9 ½ inches (7.56 meters) at the 1933 National High School Championship in Chicago. Owens attended Ohio State University after his father found employment, which ensured that the family could be supported. Under the coaching of Larry Snyder, Owens won a record eight individual NCAA championships, four each in 1935 and 1936. (The record of four gold medals at the NCAA was equaled only by Xavier Carter in 2006, although his many titles also included relay medals.) Though Owens enjoyed athletic success, he had to live off campus with other African-American athletes. When he traveled with the team, Owens was restricted to ordering carry-out or eating at “blacks-only” restaurants. Similarly, he had to stay at “blacks-only” hotels. Owens did not receive a scholarship for his efforts, so he continued to take part-time jobs to pay for school.

Owens achieved track and field immortality in a span of 45 minutes on May 25th, 1935, during the Big Ten meet at Ferry Field in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he set three world records and tied a fourth. He equaled the world record for the 100-yards (9.4 seconds), and set world records in the long jump (26 ft 8 ¼ in or 8.13 m, a world record that would last for 25 years); 220 yards (20.3 seconds); and 220-yard low hurdles (22.6 seconds, becoming the first to break 23 seconds).

On December 4th, 1935, NAACP Secretary Walter Francis White wrote a letter to Owens, although he never actually sent it. He wanted to dissuade Owens from taking part in the Olympics on the grounds that an African-American should not promote a racist regime after what African-Americans had suffered at the hands of white racists in his own country. In the months prior to the Games, a movement gained momentum in favor of a boycott. Owens was convinced by the NAACP to declare “If there are minorities in Germany who are being discriminated against, the United States should withdraw from the 1936 Olympics.” Yet he and others eventually took part after Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee branded them “un-American agitators.”

In 1936, Owens and his United States teammates sailed on the SS Manhattan and arrived in Berlin to compete at the Summer Olympics. Owens arrived at the new Olympic stadium to a throng of fans, according to fellow American sprinter James LuValle (who won the bronze in the 400 meters), many of them young girls yelling “Wo ist Jesse? Wo ist Jesse?” Owens’ success at the games did present problems for Hitler, who was using them to show the world a resurgent Nazi Germany. He and other government officials had high hopes that German athletes would dominate the games with victories. Just before the competitions, Adi Dassler visited Owens in the Olympic village. He was the founder of the Adidas athletic shoe company, and he persuaded Owens to wear Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes. This was the first ever sponsorship for a male African American athlete.

On August 3rd Owens won the 100 meters with a time of 10.3 s, defeating teammate and college friend Ralph Metcalfe by a tenth of a second and defeating Tinus Osendarp of the Netherlands by two tenths of a second. On August 4th, he won the long jump with a jump of 8.06 m (26 ft 5 in) (3¼ inches short of his own world record). He later credited this achievement to the technical advice that he received from Luz Long, the German competitor whom he defeated. On August 5th, he won the 200 meters with a time of 20.7 s, defeating teammate Mack Robinson (the older brother of Jackie Robinson). On August 9th, he won his fourth gold medal in the 4 × 100 m sprint relay when head coach Lawson Robertson replaced Jewish-American sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller with Owens and Ralph Metcalfe, who teamed with Frank Wykoff and Foy Draper to set a world record of 39.8 s in the event. Owens’ record-breaking performance of four gold medals was not equaled until Carl Lewis won gold medals in the same events at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Owens set the world record in the long jump with a jump of 8.13 m (26 ft 8 in) in 1935, the year before the Berlin Olympics, and this record stood for 25 years until it was broken in 1960 by countryman Ralph Boston.

The long-jump victory is documented, along with many other 1936 events, in the 1938 film Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl. On August 1st, 1936, Hitler shook hands with the German victors only and then left the stadium. International Olympic Committee president Henri de Baillet-Latour insisted that Hitler greet every medalist or none at all. Hitler opted for the latter and skipped all further medal presentations. On August 2nd Hitler did not publicly congratulate any of the medal winners. Even so, the communist New York City newspaper the Daily Worker claimed Hitler received all the track winners except Johnson (African-American high jumper) and left the stadium as a “deliberate snub” after watching Johnson’s winning jump. Hitler was subsequently accused of failing to acknowledge Owens (who won gold medals on August 3, 4 (two), and 8) or shake his hand. Owens responded to these claims at the time:

Hitler had a certain time to come to the stadium and a certain time to leave. It happened he had to leave before the victory ceremony after the 100 meters. But before he left I was on my way to a broadcast and passed near his box. He waved at me and I waved back. I think it was bad taste to criticize the ‘man of the hour’ in another country.

In an article dated August 4, 1936, the African-American newspaper editor Robert L. Vann describes witnessing Hitler “salute” Owens for having won gold in the 100m sprint (August 3):

And then … wonder of wonders … I saw Herr Adolph Hitler, salute this lad. I looked on with a heart which beat proudly as the lad who was crowned king of the 100 meters event, get an ovation the like of which I have never heard before. I saw Jesse Owens greeted by the Grand Chancellor of this country as a brilliant sun peeped out through the clouds. I saw a vast crowd of some 85,000 or 90,000 people stand up and cheer him to the echo.

Albert Speer wrote that Hitler “was highly annoyed by the series of triumphs by the marvelous colored American runner, Jesse Owens. People whose antecedents came from the jungle were primitive, Hitler said with a shrug; their physiques were stronger than those of civilized whites and hence should be excluded from future games.”

In a 2009 interview, German journalist Siegfried Mischner claimed that Owens carried around a photograph in his wallet of the Führer shaking his hand before the latter left the stadium. Owens, who felt that the newspapers of the day reported “unfairly” on Hitler’s attitude towards him, tried to get Mischner and his journalist colleagues to change the accepted version of history in the 1960s. Mischner claimed that Owens showed him the photograph and told him: “That was one of my most beautiful moments.” Mischner added: “(the picture) was taken behind the honour stand and so not captured by the world’s press. But I saw it, I saw him shaking Hitler’s hand!” According to Mischner, “the predominating opinion in post-war Germany was that Hitler had ignored Owens, so we therefore decided not to report on the photo. The consensus was that Hitler had to continue to be painted in a bad light in relation to Owens.” For some time, Mischner’s assertion was not confirmed independently of his own account, and Mischner himself admitted in Mail Online: “All my colleagues are dead, Owens is dead. I thought this was the last chance to set the record straight. I have no idea where the photo is or even if it exists still.”

However, in 2014, Eric Brown, British fighter pilot and test pilot, the Fleet Air Arm’s most decorated living pilot, independently stated in a BBC documentary: “I actually witnessed Hitler shaking hands with Jesse Owens and congratulating him on what he had achieved.” Additionally, an article in The Baltimore Sun in August 1936 reported that Hitler sent Owens a commemorative inscribed cabinet photograph of himself.

Meanwhile . . . on October 15th, 1936, Owens repeated this allegation when he addressed an audience of African Americans at a Republican rally in Kansas City, remarking: “Hitler didn’t snub me — it was our president who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.” A real instance of the pot calling the kettle – er – Black. The US was just as replete with racism as Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust originated in eugenics carried out by scientists in California who instructed the Nazis in the 1930s. Joseph Mengele was taught by Americans!!!! Furthermore, the US refused to get involved in the Second World War until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. To be fair, Britain, France, and Russia did not want to get involved either until their homelands were threatened.

In Germany, Owens had been allowed to travel with and stay in the same hotels as whites, at a time when African Americans in many parts of the United States had to stay in segregated hotels that accommodated only Blacks. When Owens returned to the United States, he was greeted in New York City by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. During a Manhattan ticker-tape parade in his honor along Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes, someone handed Owens a paper bag. Owens paid it little mind until the parade concluded. When he opened it up, he found that the bag contained $10,000 in cash. Owens’s wife Ruth later said: “And he [Owens] didn’t know who was good enough to do a thing like that. And with all the excitement around, he didn’t pick it up right away. He didn’t pick it up until he got ready to get out of the car.” After the parade, Owens was not permitted to enter through the main doors of the Waldorf Astoria New York and instead forced to travel up to the event in a freight elevator to reach the reception honoring him.[42][46] President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) never invited Jesse Owens to the White House following his triumphs at the Olympic Games. When the Democrats bid for his support, Owens rejected those overtures: as a staunch Republican, he endorsed Alf Landon, Roosevelt’s Republican opponent in the 1936 presidential race.

Owens joined the Republican Party after returning from Europe and was paid to campaign for African American votes for the Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon in the 1936 presidential election. Speaking at a Republican rally held in Baltimore on October 9, 1936, Owens said: “Some people say Hitler snubbed me. But I tell you, Hitler did not snub me. I am not knocking the President. Remember, I am not a politician, but remember that the President did not send me a message of congratulations because, people said, he was too busy.”

After the games had ended, the entire Olympic team was invited to compete in Sweden. Owens decided to capitalize on his success by returning to the United States to take up some of the more lucrative endorsement offers. United States athletic officials were furious and withdrew his amateur status, which immediately ended his career. Owens was angry, saying, “A fellow desires something for himself.” Owens argued that the racial discrimination he had faced throughout his athletic career, such as not being eligible for scholarships in college and therefore being unable to take classes between training and working to pay his way, meant he had to give up on amateur athletics in pursuit of financial gain elsewhere.

Jesse Owens returned home from the 1936 Olympics with four gold medals and international fame, but there were no guarantees for his future prosperity. Racism was still prevalent in the United States, and he had difficulty finding work. He took on menial jobs as a gas station attendant, playground janitor, and manager of a dry cleaning firm. He also raced against amateurs and horses for cash.

Owens was prohibited from making appearances at amateur sporting events to bolster his profile, and he found out that the commercial offers had all but disappeared. In 1937, he briefly toured with a twelve-piece jazz band under contract with Consolidated Artists but found it unfulfilling. He also made appearances at baseball games and other events. Finally, Willis Ward—a friend and former competitor from the University of Michigan— brought Owens to Detroit in 1942 to work at Ford Motor Company as Assistant Personnel Director. He later became a director, where he worked until 1946.

Owens helped promote the exploitation film Mom and Dad in African American neighborhoods. He tried to make a living as a sports promoter, essentially an entertainer. He would give local sprinters a ten- or twenty-yard start and beat them in the 100-yd (91-m) dash. He also challenged and defeated racehorses; as he revealed later, the trick was to race a high-strung thoroughbred that would be frightened by the starter’s shotgun and give him a bad jump. Owens said, “People say that it was degrading for an Olympic champion to run against a horse, but what was I supposed to do? I had four gold medals, but you can’t eat four gold medals.” On the lack of opportunities, Owens added, “There was no television, no big advertising, no endorsements then. Not for a black man, anyway.”

Owens ran a dry cleaning business and worked as a gas station attendant to earn a living, but he eventually filed for bankruptcy. In 1966, he was successfully prosecuted for tax evasion. At rock bottom, he was aided in beginning his rehabilitation. The government appointed him as a US goodwill ambassador. Owens traveled the world and spoke to companies such as the Ford Motor Company and stakeholders such as the United States Olympic Committee. By this time, Civil Rights had made a mark.

Owens initially refused to support the black power salute by African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics. He told them:

The black fist is a meaningless symbol. When you open it, you have nothing but fingers – weak, empty fingers. The only time the black fist has significance is when there’s money inside. There’s where the power lies.

Four years later in his 1972 book I Have Changed, he revised his opinion:

I realized now that militancy in the best sense of the word was the only answer where the black man was concerned, that any black man who wasn’t a militant in 1970 was either blind or a coward.

Owens traveled to Munich for the 1972 Summer Olympics as a special guest of the West German government, meeting West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and former boxer Max Schmeling.

A few months before his death, Owens had unsuccessfully tried to convince President Jimmy Carter to withdraw his demand that the United States boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He argued that the Olympic ideal was supposed to be observed as a time-out from war and that it was above politics.

Owens was a pack-a-day cigarette smoker for 35 years, having started at age 32. Beginning in December 1979, he was hospitalized on and off with an extremely aggressive and drug-resistant type of lung cancer. He died of the disease at age 66 in Tucson, Arizona, on March 31, 1980, with his wife and other family members at his bedside. He was buried at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago. Although Jimmy Carter had ignored Owens’ request to cancel the Olympic boycott, the President issued a tribute to Owens after he died: “Perhaps no athlete better symbolized the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry.”

One of the great old timey recipes from Alabama is bananas and custard, which is as easy to make as it sounds. It is not to be confused with banana cream pie, or banana custard pie. You’ll need bananas, vanilla biscuits (cookies), egg custard, and toasted meringues.

Make an egg custard of your choice. I make a classic egg custard in a double boiler, which is not complicated – egg yolks, cream, and sugar. Use the whites to make meringues. Assemble by cutting bananas into a bowl and adding an equal quantity of vanilla biscuits or wafers. Pour custard over the bananas and biscuits to cover, and chill. When ready to serve, top with meringues.

Jan 262018
 

Today is the birthday (1905) of Maria Augusta von Trapp (née Kutschera), also known as Baroness von Trapp, the stepmother and matriarch of the Trapp Family Singers. She wrote The Story of the Trapp Family Singers which was published in 1949. The story served as the inspiration for the 1956 West German film The Trapp Family, which in turn inspired the Broadway musical The Sound of Music (1959) and the 1965 film of the same name. Maria was the daughter of Augusta (née Rainer) and Karl Kutschera. She was delivered on a train heading from her parents’ village in Tyrol to a hospital in Vienna. She was an orphan by her 10th birthday. Maria was put in the care of an abusive uncle who was a radical atheist and staunchly anti-Catholic. She graduated from the State Teachers College for Progressive Education in Vienna at age 18, in 1923. While working as a teacher she happened to attend a Palm Sunday service at a local Catholic church, thinking she was going to a concert of Bach organ music. She was inspired by the priest’s sermon and decided to live a religious life.

Maria was actually a wild child, and her temperament did not soften after conversion. In 1924 she entered Nonnberg Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Salzburg, as a postulant, intending to become a nun. Contrary to Sound of Music, she did not “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” whilst a nun. In fact she was very sickly. She did cause a lot of trouble, though. In 1926, while she was still a schoolteacher at the abbey, Maria was asked to teach one of the seven children of widowed naval commander Georg von Trapp. His wife, Agatha Whitehead, had died in 1922 from scarlet fever, contracted from one of the children. Eventually, Maria began to look after the other children as well (Rupert, Agathe, Maria Franziska, Werner, Hedwig, Johanna, and Martina). Thus, she was not hired as a nanny, and she did not introduce the children to music; they already had a music tutor. Nor was Georg the distant father portrayed in Sound of Music. He was a loving and devoted father who encouraged music in the home.

Georg von Trapp, seeing how much she cared about his children, asked Maria to marry him, although he was 25 years her senior. Frightened, she fled back to Nonnberg Abbey to seek guidance from the mother abbess. The mother abbess advised Maria that it was God’s will that she should marry the Captain. Because Maria was taught always to follow God’s will, she returned to the family and told the Captain she would marry him. She later wrote in her autobiography that on her wedding day she was blazing mad, both at God and at her husband, because what she really wanted was to be a nun: “I really and truly was not in love. I liked him but didn’t love him. However, I loved the children, so in a way I really married the children. I learned to love him more than I have ever loved before or after.” Maria and Georg married on 26 November 1927. They had three children together: Rosmarie (born 1929), Eleonore (“Lorli”) (born 1931), and Johannes (born 1939).

In 1935, the Trapps faced financial ruin. Georg had transferred his savings, held until then by a bank in London, to an Austrian bank run by a friend, Frau Lammer. Austria was at the time experiencing economic difficulties during a worldwide depression, because of the Crash of 1929. Lammer’s bank failed, and the family faced a financial emergency. To survive, the Trapps sent away most of their servants, moved into the top floor of their home, and rented out the other rooms. The archbishop sent Father Franz Wasner to stay with them as their chaplain, and this began their singing career.

Soprano Lotte Lehmann heard the family sing, and she suggested they perform at concerts. When the Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg heard them on the radio, he invited them to perform in Vienna. After performing at a festival in 1935, they became a popular touring act. They experienced life under the Nazis after the annexation of Austria by Germany in March 1938. Life became increasingly difficult as they witnessed hostility towards Jewish children by their classmates, the use of children against their parents, the advocacy of abortion both by Maria’s doctor and by her son’s school, and finally by the induction of Georg into the German Navy. They visited Munich in the summer of 1938 and encountered Hitler at a restaurant. He invited them to perform for him, but they refused. In September, the family left Austria and traveled to Italy, then to England and finally the United States. The Nazis made use of their abandoned home as Heinrich Himmler’s headquarters.

Initially calling themselves the “Trapp Family Choir”, the von Trapps began to perform in the United States and Canada. They performed in New York City at The Town Hall on 10 December 1938. The New York Times wrote:

There was something unusually lovable and appealing about the modest, serious singers of this little family aggregation as they formed a close semicircle about their self-effacing director for their initial offering, the handsome Mme. von Trapp in simple black, and the youthful sisters garbed in black and white Austrian folk costumes enlivened with red ribbons. It was only natural to expect work of exceeding refinement from them, and one was not disappointed in this.

Charles Wagner was their first booking agent, then they signed on with Frederick Christian Schang. Thinking the name “Trapp Family Choir” too churchy, Schang Americanized their repertoire and, following his suggestion, the group changed its name to the “Trapp Family Singers”. The family, which by then included ten children, was soon touring the world giving concert performances. Alix Williamson served as the group’s publicist for over two decades. After the war, they founded the Trapp Family Austrian Relief fund, which sent food and clothing to people impoverished in Austria.

In the 1940s, the family moved to Stowe, Vermont, where they ran a music camp when they were not touring. In 1944, Maria and her stepdaughters, Johanna, Martina, Maria, Hedwig, and Agathe applied for U.S. citizenship. Georg never applied to become a citizen. Rupert and Werner became citizens by serving during World War II. Rosmarie and Eleonore became citizens by virtue of their mother’s citizenship. Johannes was born in the United States in Philadelphia on September 1939, during a concert tour. Georg von Trapp died in 1947 in Vermont after suffering from lung cancer.

The family made a series of 78-rpm records for RCA Victor in the 1950s, some of which were later issued on RCA Camden LPs. There were also a few later recordings released on LPs, including some stereo sessions. In 1957, the Trapp Family Singers disbanded and went their separate ways. Maria and three of her children became missionaries in Papua New Guinea. In 1965, Maria had moved back to Vermont to manage the Trapp Family Lodge, which had been named Cor Unum. Maria began turning over management of the Lodge to her son, Johannes, although she was initially reluctant to do so. Hedwig returned to Austria and worked as a teacher in Umhausen.

Maria von Trapp died of heart failure on 28 March 1987 (age 82), in Morrisville, Vermont, three days following surgery. Maria, her husband Georg, and four of her stepchildren (Hedwig, Martina, Rupert, and Werner) are interred in the family cemetery at the Lodge.

I visited the Lodge in Vermont 8 years ago. Johannes (Johnny) still popped in now and again, although he had nothing to do with the management any more. It’s in a beautiful setting in the Green Mountains, but I was not fully aware of its significance until I visited the Tyrol 2 years ago. Pictures and souvenirs of Maria are everywhere of course, but I was mostly taken with the uncanny resemblance of the wilder parts of the Tyrol and Vermont.

Tyrol cuisine is famous as a cross between classic Italian and Austrian cooking. Among other things, you can get strudel in any variety imaginable – not just apple. Tyrol strudels can be savory as well as sweet. For me Kartoffelteigtaschen mit Pfifferlingen (potato ravioli with chanterelles) is perfect Tyrol cooking, combining a pasta dough like northern Italian gnocchi and the mushrooms of the mountains.

Kartoffelteigtaschen mit Pfifferlingen

Ingredients

Filling:

1 tbsp. olive oil
½ small yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
½ cup trimmed, finely chopped chanterelles
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Pasta:

2 lb russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 2″ chunks
salt
1 ½ cups “00” flour
1 tsp. sweet wine, such as moscato
4 egg yolks

To Serve:

2 tbsp. olive oil
½ lb. chanterelles, trimmed, larger ones torn into small pieces
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tbsp. butter
¼ cup grated parmigiano-reggiano
¼ cup small sprigs flat-leaf parsley

Instructions

For the filling: Heat the oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring often, until softened, 3-4 minutes. Add the chanterelles and salt and pepper to taste, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in the parsley and transfer mixture to a bowl. Set aside.

For the pasta: Put the potatoes in a large pot, cover them with salted water, and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until tender, about 15 minutes. Drain the potatoes, return them to the pot, and let them dry slightly over medium-low heat, 4-5 minutes. Press the potatoes through a potato ricer on to a large parchment paper-lined sheet pan in a single layer. Let cool.

Put the prepared potatoes, flour, wine, egg yolks, and salt to taste in a large bowl, and gently mix them into a soft dough. Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured surface, and divide it into 2 balls. Cover 1 ball with plastic wrap and refrigerate it. Roll out the remaining dough into a 10″ × 14″ rectangle. Cut the rolled dough in half crosswise. Spoon some of the filling in 10 small mounds (1 generous tsp. each) on half the dough, keeping them spaced about 2″ apart. Run a moistened finger around each mound to form a 2″ square. Lay the other half of rolled-out dough over the mounds. Press down in between mounds to seal ravioli. Using a ravioli cutter or a sharp knife, cut the dough into ten 2″-square ravioli. Transfer to a lightly floured sheet pan. Repeat with the remaining dough and filling.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Gently drop in the ravioli and simmer until floating and cooked through, about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the chanterelles, season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Transfer the chanterelles to a bowl. Return the skillet to the heat, add butter, and cook until light brown, 3-4 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the ravioli to 4 plates. Top with mushrooms and parmigiano and drizzle with brown butter. Sprinkle with parsley.

Serves 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Feb 262016
 

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On this date in 1936 German Chancellor Adolf Hitler unveiled the “people’s car,” later called the Volkswagen. It is often erroneously stated that Hitler designed the car: he did not. Sometimes it is also stated that he sketched the design on a napkin. If so, he was certainly copying designs that were already being offered. The ethos, and history, of the Volkswagen beetle is fascinating, going from the pride of the Third Reich to the quintessential hippiemobile in less than 30 years.

In the early 1930s, the German auto industry was still largely turning out luxury models, and the average German could rarely afford anything more than a motorcycle. As a result, only one German out of 50 owned a car. Seeking a potential new market, some car makers began independent “peoples’ car” projects – the Mercedes 170H, Adler AutoBahn, Steyr 55, and Hanomag 1.3L, among others.

Mercedes-Benz 170H

Mercedes-Benz 170H

The trend was not new; Béla Barényi is credited with having conceived the basic design in the mid-1920s. Josef Ganz developed the Standard Superior (going as far as advertising it as the “German Volkswagen”). In Germany the company Hanomag mass-produced the 2/10 PS “Komissbrot”, a small, cheap rear-engine car, from 1925 to 1928. Also, in Czechoslovakia, the Hans Ledwinka designed Tatra T77, a very popular car amongst the German elite, was becoming smaller and more affordable at each revision.

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Ferdinand Porsche, a well-known designer of high-end vehicles and race cars, had been trying for years to get a manufacturer interested in a small car suitable for a family. He felt the small cars at the time were just stripped down big cars. Instead he built a car he called the “Volksauto” from the ground up in 1933, using many of the ideas floating around at the time and several of his own, putting together a car with an air-cooled rear engine, torsion bar suspension, and a “beetle” shape, the front hood rounded for better aerodynamics (necessary because it had a small engine). His design became the VW Beetle.

In 1932, with many of the above projects still in development or early stages of production, Adolf Hitler got involved, ordering the production of a basic vehicle capable of transporting two adults and three children at 100 km/h (62 mph). The “People’s Car” would be available to citizens of the Third Reich through a savings plan at 990 Reichsmark (€ 3826.35 today)—about the price of a small motorcycle (the average income being around 32RM a week).

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Despite heavy lobbying in favor of the existing projects, it soon became apparent that private industry could not turn out a car for only 990RM. Thus, Hitler chose to sponsor an all-new, state-owned factory using Ferdinand Porsche’s design (with some of Hitler’s design constraints, including an air-cooled engine so nothing could freeze). The intention was that ordinary Germans would buy the car by means of a savings scheme (“Fünf Mark die Woche musst du sparen, willst du im eigenen Wagen fahren” – “Five marks a week you must put aside, if you want to drive your own car”), which around 336,000 people eventually paid into. However, the entire project was financially unsound.

Prototypes of the car called the “KdF-Wagen” (German: Kraft durch Freude – “strength through joy”), appeared from 1938 onwards (the first cars had been produced in Stuttgart). The car already had its distinctive round shape and air-cooled, flat-four, rear-mounted engine. VW Type 82E

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Erwin Komenda, the longstanding Auto Union chief designer, part of Ferdinand Porsche’s hand-picked team, developed the car body of the prototype, which was recognizably the Beetle known today. It was one of the first cars designed with the aid of a wind tunnel—a method used for German aircraft design since the early 1920s. The car designs were put through rigorous tests, and achieved a record-breaking million miles of testing before being deemed finished.

The building of the new factory started 26 May 1938 in the new town of KdF-Stadt (modern-day Wolfsburg), which had been purpose-built for the factory workers. This factory had produced only a handful of cars by the time war started in 1939. None was actually delivered to any holder of the completed saving stamp books, though one Type 1 Cabriolet was presented to Hitler on 20 April 1944 (his 55th birthday).

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War changed production to military vehicles—the Type 82 Kübelwagen (“Bucket car”) utility vehicle (VW’s most common wartime model), and the amphibious Schwimmwagen—manufactured for German forces. As was common with much of the production in Nazi Germany during the war, slave labor was used in the Volkswagen plant, for example from Arbeitsdorf concentration camp. The company would admit in 1998 that it used 15,000 slaves during the war effort. German historians estimate that 80% of Volkswagen’s wartime workforce was slave labor. Many of the slaves were reported to have been supplied from the concentration camps upon request from plant managers. A lawsuit was filed in 1998 by survivors for restitution for the forced labor.

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The company owes its post-war existence largely to one man, British Army officer Major Ivan Hirst, REME. In April 1945, KdF-Stadt, and its heavily bombed factory were captured by U.S. forces, and subsequently handed over to the British, within whose occupation zone the town and factory fell. The factories were placed under the control of Oldham-born Hirst. At first, the plan was to use the factory for military vehicle maintenance, and possibly dismantle and ship it to Britain. Since it had been used for military production, and had been in Hirst’s words, a “political animal” rather than a commercial enterprise—technically making it liable for destruction under the terms of the Potsdam Agreement—the equipment could be salvaged as war reparations. (Allied dismantling policy changed in late 1946 to mid-1947, though heavy industry continued to be dismantled until 1951.) Hirst painted one of the factory’s cars green and demonstrated it to British Army headquarters. Short of light transport, in September 1945 the British Army was persuaded to place a vital order for 20,000. The first few hundred cars went to personnel from the occupying forces, and to the German Post Office.

Some British Service personnel were allowed to take their Beetles back to the United Kingdom when they were demobilized, and one of the very first Beetles brought back in that way (UK registration number JLT 420) is still owned by Peter Colborne-Baber, the son of the original proprietor of the UK’s first official Volkswagen Importer, Colborne Garages of Ripley, Surrey.

The post-war industrial plans for Germany set out rules that governed which industries Germany was allowed to retain. These rules set German car production at a maximum of 10% of 1936 car production. By 1946, the factory produced 1,000 cars a month—a remarkable feat considering it was still in disrepair. Owing to roof and window damage, production had to stop when it rained, and the company had to barter new vehicles for steel for production.

People's Car

The car and its town changed their Second World War-era names to “Volkswagen” and “Wolfsburg” respectively, and production increased. It was still unclear what was to become of the factory. It was offered to representatives from the U.S., Australian, British, and French motor industries. Famously, all rejected it. After an inspection of the plant, Sir William Rootes, head of the British Rootes Group, told Hirst the project would fail within two years, and that the car “…is quite unattractive to the average motorcar buyer, is too ugly and too noisy … If you think you’re going to build cars in this place, you’re a bloody fool, young man.” The official report said “To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise.” In an ironic twist of fate, Volkswagen manufactured a locally built version of Rootes’s Hillman Avenger in Argentina in the 1980s, long after Rootes had gone bankrupt at the hands of Chrysler in 1978—the Beetle outliving the Avenger by over 30 years.

Ford representatives were equally critical. In March 1948, the British offered the Volkswagen company to Ford, free of charge. Henry Ford II, the son of Edsel Ford, traveled to West Germany for discussions. Heinz Nordhoff was also present, and Ernest Breech, chairman of the board for Ford Motor Company. Henry Ford II looked to Ernest Breech for his opinion, and Breech said, “Mr. Ford, I don’t think what we’re being offered here is worth a dime!” Ford passed on the offer, leaving Volkswagen to rebuild itself under Nordhoff’s leadership.

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As we now know, Volkswagen did rebuild itself. The Volkswagen Group is now a German multinational automotive manufacturing company headquartered in Wolfsburg. It designs, manufactures and distributes passenger and commercial vehicles, motorcycles, engines, and turbomachinery and offers related services including financing, leasing and fleet management. In 2012, it produced the second-largest number of motor vehicles of any company in the world, behind Toyota and ahead of General Motors. It has maintained the largest market share in Europe for over two decades. As of 2013, it ranked ninth in the Fortune Global 500 list of the world’s largest companies. In 2014, it reached production output of 10.14 million vehicles. Volkswagen Group sells passenger cars under the Bentley, Bugatti, Lamborghini, Audi, Porsche, SEAT, Škoda and Volkswagen marques; motorcycles under the Ducati brand; and commercial vehicles under the MAN, Scania, Neoplan and Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles marques.

vw8

Lower Saxony, where Wolfsburg is located is famous for a number of dishes including Hochzeitssuppe (literally: “wedding soup”). It is a clear soup based on chicken broth, filled with small meatballs (Fleischklößchen), asparagus heads, noodles and savory egg custard garnish (Eierstich). Various versions of hochzeitssuppe are now eaten throughout Germany by the bride and groom and guests, traditionally after the wedding ceremony, and it is usually served as the starter on the menu at the wedding reception.

Preparing the soup is a bit of a rigmarole. All of the ingredients should be prepared separately, not in the broth, and kept warm before serving. To serve the soup, arrange the warm ingredients in bowls, and then pour hot broth over them, then garnish. This method guarantees that every guest has a fair mix of all the ingredients. Here’s the basics with proportions for about 8 servings.

Hochzeitssuppe

Begin with a rich, clarified chicken broth, brought to a simmer.

You can use a number of vegetables if you wish, but white asparagus and carrots are traditional. Cut them into small pieces and simmer until al dente. Keep warm.

Take equal quantities of spicy German sausage meat, such as Thüringer Mett, and ground beef, and mix it thoroughly with a beaten egg and some breadcrumbs. Roll the mix into small meatballs, and poach them gently in water or stock (not the soup stock). Keep warm.

You can make the eierstich, egg custard, in several ways. Beat together 1 cup of milk or cream, 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks, plus a dash of freshly ground nutmeg and salt. Don’t be so vigorous that a froth forms. Pour the mix into sealable plastic pouches, close them tightly, and place in boiling water for 10 minutes, or until the custard is firm. Unseal the pouches and cut the custard into small pieces. I have little decorative cutters for this job. Keep warm.

If you like you can also cook some flat egg noodles.

Serve the soup in wide bowls. Arrange the vegetables, meatballs, custard, and noodles (if used), in individual bowls, pour over the hot broth, garnish with chopped chives or parsley, and serve.