Best of the wurst

I know nothing about Germans or German food. Ever since John F. Kennedy declared he was a bun cake to the people of Berlin, I’ve come to a standstill in my understanding of all things Teutonic. Personally, I blame the literature. Goethe was a whiner. Rilke was a sap. Mann was a layabout, worse than Proust. But their biggest offense was that none of them ever mentioned the food.

How else are we to learn if not through literature? How are we to distinguish among the bocks, brats, livers, knacks, gelbs or schinkens—all of them wursts—if no one German tells us? Where is the Frau Child of German cuisine?

Luckily for us, there’s German Deli. A fine purveyor of German provisions, this shop can teach us non-bun-cakes a thing or two about earthly German delights. (This German Deli should not to be confused with the mail-order German Deli of, which is based in Texas.) On the corner of Auburn Boulevard and Manzanita Avenue, our German Deli has been around for 39 years. It was founded by owner Elisabeth Gibson, who hails from Bavaria. German Deli specializes in German groceries for the kind of cooking and baking real Germans do. It has a large selection of German imported beers and wines, and people come from as far away as Oregon to peruse its authentic flavors.

I like the ready-to-eat items, of which there are several to choose. Take braunschweiger, supposedly the most popular of liverwursts. The Saag’s brand, sold in German Deli’s cold case, is a smoked-liver sausage made with pork liver, other cuts of pork, onions and spices. German Deli carries many pâtés, including a pistachio-liver pâté and a veal loaf, but these weren’t the only Saag’s products showcased in the deli case.

Saag’s German Frankfurters were on display, along with the brand’s garlic sausages, smoked bratwursts and bockwursts. The German Frankfurter, made from pork, veal, onions and spices, was light, long and lean—more sweet than salty. The garlic sausage, made with pork and beef, was its inverse cousin—fat, short and salty. Supposedly hickory smoked, the sausage’s garlic and smoke flavors were pleasantly mild. This sausage represented the middle land between the delicate flavors of the Munich-famed bockwurst (a pale white, mildly spiced sausage made with pork, veal and parsley) and the smoked bratwurst (full of assertive smoky, spicy flavor expressed through a mixture of pork, beef and veal).

“Why so much Saag’s?” I asked a German Deli staff member. San Leandro-based Saag’s is an old sausage shop started in Oakland by a Swiss family in 1933. The German Deli staff said Saag’s recipes and techniques are closest to the flavors Germans like and are familiar with. The non-Saag’s sausages in German Deli’s case are made by a butcher in Lodi.

In the condiment arena, German Deli overflows with mustards, sauerkrauts, pickles and horseradishes. Though it’s hard to know what you might like, a good rule of thumb is to be careful with the mustards and horseradishes but don’t worry about the pickles and sauerkrauts. The former set is highly variable with regard to sweetness, hotness and creaminess, but those in the latter set are almost all likable on some level. The same is true for the dried spaetzle; it’s hard to go wrong. Spaetzle, for those whose pasta knowledge hearkens toward Italy or China, is a specialty of the Swabian or southwestern region of Germany. They’re little pieces of dough that are a cross between noodles and dumplings.

Though the sauerkraut, pickle and spaetzle options all were benign choices, the herring selections were precarious—every last one. Canned herring comes in wine sauce, aspic, tomato sauce, paprika sauce, burgundy sauce, mushroom sauce, mustard sauce and garlic-cream sauce. I dared to try the herring with garlic-cream sauce. The flavor was reminiscent of dried, grilled squid—a sweet, good, fishy flavor but one that seemed falsely worn by herring fillets in congealed garlic cream. This purchase I regretted.

I also regretted not buying the rendered goose fat. Most people use it for cooking and baking, but it turns out that older Germans still eat it as a spread. That’s the way they used to do it after the war because it was an easy item to get.

But German food is not all about animal products. German Deli offers myriad sweets. There are candies, chocolates, cookies and log rolls that look attractively festive. A package of Weissella soft gingerbread cookies, covered in chocolate and with a light wafer texture on the underbelly, was an absolute delight. They tasted like a gingerbread version of a Cool-A-Coo but without the ice cream and with flecks of nuts and orange-peel flavor.

If German Deli had bun cakes, or Berliners, I missed them. It’s just as well. The era of bun cake is over in Sacramento. It’s all about beefcake now.