Luisa Weiss, born in Berlin to an American father and Italian mother, had a splintered childhood. She spent her earliest years in Berlin. When her parents divorced, she moved to the United States with her father, a math professor. Vacations were spent in Berlin, where her Italian mother remained, leavened with occasional visits to Italy, where Weiss spent time with relatives.
Despite loving family and friends, Weiss grew up profoundly unsure of herself and her place in the world. During graduate studies in Paris, she met Max, her future husband. Fearing commitment, she ended the relationship, moving to New York City, where she worked in publishing and quickly became caught up in the fast-track life of a young woman in the city.
Arguably, Weiss had it all—a great job, caring friends, a new boyfriend who wanted to marry her. Yet she remained miserable, longing for Berlin.
She took refuge in the kitchen, cooking and baking everything from traditional German cakes to chipotle meatballs. In August 2005, she began The Wednesday Chef, a blog that soon drew thousands of loyal readers.
In 2009, Weiss returned to Berlin permanently, where her relationship with Max was rekindled. The couple married in 2011. In, 2012, they welcomed their son, Hugo. Amidst all this, Weiss has penned a memoir, My Berlin Kitchen, vividly describing what it means to feel “mishmashed”; that is, speak three languages as a matter of course, and the trials and triumphs found only in the kitchen.
We corresponded via email.
I want to start off with the book’s main theme: your sense of displacement throughout your childhood and early adulthood. In My Berlin Kitchen, you write of the tremendous difficulty your “mongrel” heritage caused you. Do you feel more at peace with your mixed identity now?Did finally settling in Berlin truly lay those demons to rest?
I do feel more at peace now - -being in Berlin has calmed a lot of my longtime inner turmoil. Which is weird, of course, because I’m not German and there are some things about living in Germany that will always feel really foreign to me, far more so than in the US, but for some reason, it feels deeply comforting to live in this particular city, to walk down these streets every day, to buy bread in the stores and apples at the market. It’s simply home in a way that no other place is for me.
Every once in a while, I get wanderlust or a little longing for the US, but it’s nothing that a quick trip over can’t cure. Certainly the terrible melancholy I used to feel is gone. It’s a huge weight off my shoulders.
You speak a great deal of your mother being Italian, of living in Germany without being precisely German, yet you say little of your father being Jewish; it’s almost an afterthought. I found that interesting from both the cooking standpoint: virtually none of the book’s recipes are Jewish—and from the inescapable fact that you live in Germany, where traces of World War II and the Berlin Wall are everywhere. Reading the book, I got the impression that you feel more Italian and American than Jewish. Can you talk about this a bit?
My father’s culturally Jewish, but not religious at all. Neither is my mother (she was raised Catholic). So I was raised with no religion whatsoever. Every once in a blue moon, my dad and I would be invited to a Seder by colleagues or friends, which we’d attend, and of course I always celebrated Christmas with my mother, either in Italy or Berlin, but those were cultural experiences far more than religious ones. So, yes, I do feel more Italian and American than I feel Jewish or Catholic.
I was never really initiated into those religions in a classical sense. But my mother, a voracious reader, has an entire bookcase in her apartment devoted to books on the Holocaust and all throughout my childhood, she dragged me to whatever exhibit, memorial, museum or movie that dealt with the subject matter that she could. So I’ve always felt very informed and aware and also affected by that terrible history, but that comes far more from my mother’s influence that it does from my father.
In the book you describe yourself as “mishmashed”. Much later, when planning your marriage to Max, you write of compartmentalizing yourself: the American Luisa, the Italian Luisa, and so forth, and how you had to allow Max to see all these personas. It seems that language had much to do with which person you were at a given moment.
Do you feel cooking unified these selves? I was quite struck by the diversity of recipes in the book-I felt they mirrored your sense of multiple personas. Even those of us who love to cook rarely have a repertoire ranging from tortillas to Basler Leckerli (German Christmas cookies)
I guess that cooking did, on some level, unify all those disparate selves, though perhaps not consciously. Far more I have to credit Max with helping me become a more “unified” person.
Pure curiosity here….what language do you speak with Max? With your son? Do you think in all your languages, or do you have a preferred one?
Max and I speak German together. I speak English to Hugo. But sometimes, if Max is around, I slip into German. It’s bad, I have to get more consistent before he’s getting much older! I think in English, but every once in a while, I’ll find myself thinking in German. It’s rare, but it happens.
I found your observation about the lifestyle differences between NewYork and Berlin fascinating. You talk about the difficulty of shifting from a fast-track, workaholic lifestyle to a slower, very European way of living. “Plenty of people hardly worked at all.” Have you adjusted to this change of pace? Though obviously being a new mother hardly means you’re lazing about!
Yes, I’ve very much adjusted to the Berlin way of life again! Now I feel like the crazy pace of New York is inhuman, when I used to thrive on it! The constant go-go-go of work, meeting friends, gym-going, etc can get so draining. As much as I sometimes miss New York’s inimitable energy, I have to say that I’m very, very happy with my slower life here. I feel more centered, more balanced, even with the crazy sleep deprivation of new motherhood.
With current German politics, the lingering presence of World War II, and the lasting meaning of the Berlin Wall in mind, the people you know who lost a great deal when the Wall was up-tread lightly through the book. My German friends and acquaintances have an acute, painful sense that past atrocities mustn’t be forgotten. After so many years in Germany, do you feel old wounds are finally healing?
The younger generation of Germans are definitely freeing themselves from the very dark cloud that they’re parents and grandparents have lived under for the past 65 years. For the older generations, I don’t think it will ever be gone. But young Germans want and need, in my opinion, to be freed. Never to forget, of course, and I think the work done by the uncountable memorials, monuments and museums devoted to Jewish life, the Holocaust, German guilt is very important. But the country must be allowed to move forward and I think it is doing so.
As an outsider, I find it very tiresome when old stereotypes of Germans are raised by foreigners (the British press using old war metaphors, for example, or the Greeks referring to the Germans as Nazis because of their economic policies). It’s unfair and undeserved, especially since Germans have done far more soul-searching and brow-beating about their terrible crimes than have ever been done by other European countries who also have a lot of dark chapters in their past.
Toward the book’s end you describe cooking elaborately for a dinner party, only to realize you had no appetite for what you’d prepared. I was reminded of Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte,, where she realizes that in lieu of a personal recipe arsenal, she’s always on the hunt for something new. Like you, this is part of her work as a food writer. Also like you, she finds herself contemplating which recipes she wants to make her own.
Besides panade (a kind of savory bread pudding), what are some of your personal favorites, meals you return to repeatedly?
We eat a lot of spaghetti in our house, of course. It’s my go-to, when there’s nothing else around or when I’m tired or when we’re hungry. All summer long, I live on steamed zucchini dressed with olive oil, chopped parsley and a garlic clove swirled around in the bowl. In winter, we eat lots of roasted potatoes with salt and rosemary and sliced fennel salad.
I have to say the passage about baking Hannchen Jansen (an elaborate layered cake) was tremendously heartening for all of us who have experienced kitchen disasters at the worst possible moments. Are there any other kitchen moments you’d be willing to share with novice cooks? This is not to embarrass you; rather, to encourage nascent cooks and let them know that even the most accomplished cooks and bakers can err.
I make mistakes all the time! Every cook does. Too little salt, too much salt, burned onions, burned rice, undercooked rice, overcooked fish—it happens all the time. What’s important is to not let those things discourage you. Learn from your mistakes and make little corrections each time you cook. Most of the time, you can sort of salvage a screwy meal and make it taste good nevertheless.