German’s chocolate was not invented in Germany or by Germans. In 1852, a man named Samuel German invented the first practical sweetened chocolate bar. Samuel German was employed by Baker’s Chocolate Company, America’s oldest chocolate company. Very little else is known about Samuel German. According to some accounts, he was an American baker, and according to other accounts, he was an Englishman who emigrated to the U.S. If you look at the package carefully (pictured below), you will see that the label doesn’t say ‘German Chocolate.’ It says ‘German’s Chocolate.’ Note the apostrophe and ‘s’ after the word ‘German.’ Before Samuel German’s invention, chocolate bars were unsweetened. Unsweetened chocolate bars are made for baking and beverages, not for eating.
GERMAN CHOCOLATE CAKE ISN’T GERMAN EITHER.
The recipe for this popular cake was invented by a woman in Texas named Mrs. George Clay. She worked for the Baker Chocolate Company, which makes German’s chocolate. Her recipe first appeared in print in a Dallas newspaper in 1957. She called her dessert ‘German’s chocolate cake’ because German’s chocolate is the principle ingredient. The cake was an immediate hit. The recipe was reprinted in newspapers all over the United States. Within 1 year, sales of German’s chocolate shot up by over 70%. Over time, most magazines and cookbooks dropped the apostrophe and ‘s’ after ‘German’ when reprinting the recipe. Today, most cookbooks and bakeries just call it German chocolate cake. It is now widely believed all over the world that German chocolate cake is a traditional German dessert, which it is not. Ironically, many restaurants in Germany now sell German chocolate cake because American tourists expect and demand it. Many German restaurants in the U.S. also serve German chocolate cake for the same reason. Several U.S. presidents have served German chocolate cake at state dinners for German politicians in the mistaken belief that German chocolate cake is a German dessert. The first U.S. president to do this was Lyndon Johnson, who served German chocolate cake at a state dinner to honor German chancellor Ludwig Erhard in 1963. Erhard had never seen German chocolate cake before and asked what it was. The most recent U.S. president to serve German chocolate cake to honor a German statesman was Barrack Obama. I don’t know if Donald Trump has ever served German chocolate cake at the White House. It is widely known that he has a sweet tooth. Trump’s favorite candies are Starburst and See’s chocolates. Incidentally, See’s gets their chocolate from the same place I do – the Guittard Chocolate Company. And remember, ‘National German Chocolate Cake Day’ is June 11.
My favorite real German dessert is apple walnut strudel. My Aunt Johanna used to make it for me when I was a boy. First, she selected the apples. She was fussy about that. She would point out to me at the produce store which apples were good for strudel and which were no good. Some types of apples turn to mush when you bake them. Then she made the puff pastry by rolling out dough until it was as thin as a sheet of paper. The dough covered a sheet of plywood that she kept in her kitchen. Then she folded the dough over and over with butter between the layers. It was a big job. A few minutes after Aunt Johanna put her strudel in the oven, the odor of the apples, cinnamon, sugar, and butter all caramelizing together filled her apartment. It could make a dead man salivate. I have never had strudel anywhere as good as Aunt Johanna’s. Most commercial bakeries in the U.S. make apple strudel with canned apple pie filling, which is just awful. Aunt Johanna was one of my elderly relatives who staunchly denied being German, even though she spoke with a German accent that was thicker than molasses in January. She also spoke in the imperative. They say that Italian is the language of love, but German is the language for giving commands. Aunt Johanna would say things like: “Mark, come into the kitchen. You eat a piece of strudel, and you will like the strudel.”
Today, it is easy to make great apple strudel at home! The time-consuming part of the job is making the puff pastry, but now, really good frozen puff pastry dough is available nationally. It wasn’t available in my Aunt Johanna’s time. I recommend Trader Joe’s all butter puff pastry or Dufour puff pastry. I don’t recommend Pepperidge Farms puff pastry, which unfortunately is the only brand that most supermarkets carry. It contains no butter and is made with palm oil and corn syrup. Yuck. Pepperidge Farms puff pastry looks buttery, but that is because there’s yellow food coloring in it. Selecting the right kind of apples is still very important. My first choice is Granny Smith. They retain some firmness when baked, and they are tart, which offsets the sugar in the strudel. If you want a somewhat sweeter apple that bakes well, try Golden Delicious. Strudel doesn’t have to be made with apples. It can be made with other kinds of fruit as well, including pears, cherries, and blueberries. Whatever kind of fruit you use, always make sure that the fruit is fresh and top quality.
History is full of improbable people, and I have always been fascinated by highly improbable people. Werner Goldberg was one of those improbably person. During World War 2, Werner Goldberg was one of the best known people in Nazi Germany. Photos of Werner Goldberg in his German army uniform appeared on billboards and army recruiting posters all over Germany. He was known to the German public simply as ‘the ideal German soldier.’ Almost nobody in Germany knew his real name or that he was a Jew. In 1933, Werner Goldberg’s father was fired from his job when Hitler came to power because he was a Jew. Werner was unable to get a job for the same reason. Werner needed to make money to feed his family, so in 1938 he joined the army. Werner saw military action soon after completing basic training. He participated in the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Shortly after the invasion of Poland began, a German army photographer took photos of Werner Goldberg and sent them to the Berliner Tagesblatt, a major newspaper in Germany’s capital. They liked the photos and published a full-page picture of Werner Goldberg in their Sunday edition. The newspaper didn’t state his name. They probably didn’t know it. They captioned the photo ‘The Ideal German Soldier.’ Hitler was very impressed by the picture and ordered it reprinted on Nazi propaganda and army recruiting posters. Eventually Nazi officials discovered the truth, that the ‘ideal German soldier’ was a Jew. Goldberg was forced out of the army, but he was never sent to jail or a concentration camp. In 1942, Werner Goldberg rescued his sick father who was being held in a Gestapo prison hospital for Jews. On Christmas Eve, Werner went to the hospital. He gambled that the guards and Gestapo agents at the door would either be absent from their posts or drunk because of the holiday, and he was right. Werner got into the hospital by showing the guards a photo of himself captioned ‘the ideal German soldier.’ The guards recognized the photo and let Werner into the hospital. Once inside, Werner simply went to his father’s room, dressed his father in street clothes that he brought with him and simply walked out the door with his father. Werner Goldberg survived the war and died in 2004.
Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood’s Golden Age, many of the top directors in the U.S. were Germans. Most of them moved to Hollywood when Hitler came to power; however, some important German directors in Hollywood arrived long before the Nazi era. Erich von Stroheim was a big movie star in the U.S. during World War 1. He was the first German actor in Hollywood to figure out that the way to get jobs directing big-budget movies was to act the role of a stereotypical German theatrical director. He knew that Americans had a very clear idea what German directors were like. Americans thought that German directors were arrogant monocled tyrants, terrorizing the people who worked under them, but that they were also artistic geniuses. Von Stroheim knew how to play to that stereotype. He starred in many big-budget movies in World War 1 and World War 2, always playing a nasty, arrogant, monocled German military officer. American audiences lapped it up! Von Stroheim was billed as ‘the man you love to hate.’ Von Stroheim began wearing a monocle soon after arriving in Hollywood, but he didn’t actually need glasses to see. The lens in von Stroheim’s monocle was just window glass. He wore the monocle as part of his theatrical personae. Twenty years after von Stroheim arrived in Hollywood, Hitler came to power, and a slew of top German directors moved to Hollywood, most of them Jewish, and all of them looking for work. Two of the best of these Jewish German directors were Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang. Both of them knew Erich von Stroheim. Soon after arriving in Hollywood, both Preminger and Lang started wearing monocles. Neither of them wore monocles when they lived in Germany. They also began sneering when being photographed. Like von Stroheim, they quickly got jobs directing important movies. My favorite movie directed by Otto Preminger was ‘Laura.’ It has often been called the best cinema noir movie ever made. Preminger won the Academy Award in 1944 as Best Director for that film. He also acted in a number of movies. In ‘Stalag 17’, Preminger played the arrogant, sadistic commandant of a German POW camp. In that movie, Preminger plays with his monocle while tormenting American POWs. So, if you know someone with a German accent who wants to become a big-name Hollywood director, my advice is – start sneering and get a monocle!