At the start of this year, I was in snowy Berlin. Feuerwerk blasts had echoed across Kreuzberg for days -- sinister at first, then enlivening -- but after the holiday, the whitened streets around our corner of Görlitzer Park fell quiet. Nearly everything was closed. We spent the earliest part of January wandering for too long between meals, pooling change for a single cup of glühwein, making a dinner of Turkish Delight and beer, pretending to be satisfied with cold blood sausage after walking 30 or so icy blocks to a coffee bar recommended by a friend.
I think it was the morning of the 3rd when the neighborhood began to stir. Around the corner from our apartment, in front of a previously dormant café, we found a man sculpting a pig out of snow. Spray bottle in hand, scarf neatly tucked, he explained that he needed to make a new one every few days because people (presumably) carried them off in the night. We asked if he knew if the café was open. "We are the café. So if you want something, come in." Sitting at a table over two croissants and heisse schokolade, N remarked, "Can you think of anywhere in San Francisco half as pleasant?"
Later that day, looking for dinner after dark, I was sulky because the raclette restaurant where I'd hoped to eat was booked -- filled with robust Germans, laughing, quicker than we were with reservations. I stomped down the sidewalk along the darkened, seething park, imagining bad spaghetti, certain that coziness had eluded us.
But then, a few blocks from our apartment, I let Nick steer me into Nest. A beacon, winningly disheveled, cavernous and white-walled with massive dark wood tables. We sat on a church-pew banquette. I relaxed. Our waitress, running around in fluourescent patchwork Nikes, charmed us with her description of pellkartoffeln: boiled potatoes. These came with pickled fish, red onions and dill, yogurt sauce, and bread.
"It's very poor food, very German. Good for winter."
I don't think she thought we'd want it. We did.
"It's going to take about ten mintues, because I have to boil the potatoes, yeah?"
We waited with beers, entranced by a trio of friends across the room, smiling quietly in sweaters, sharing pasta and salad from giant glass bowls.
Our kartoffeln came warm and towel-wrapped, in an oblong basket. Earthy, waxy, golden, next to pale, sweet-bright pickled herring and a bowl of quark. Our hands began to move, forks clinking: take a bite of fish, butter the bread, spear a potato, swipe it in cream, break for beer, keep going. Eat everything.
Sometime during that dinner blur, kartoffel became my favorite German word. Yes, there are other nice ones -- spiegelei, Kottbusser Tor, flohmarkt, tschüss! -- but kartoffel doesn't merely sound funny or pleasant. It turns something regular into something unexpectedly wonderful.
Next year, I will eat unexpectedly wonderful things, and I will write about them. Happy 2011!