Germans still have a taste for the old divide when it's time for lunch

European Times: Berlin

The West German doctor's wife Gabriela Mendling, who wrote a disparaging book about her neighbours in a village in the East, recoiled at their barbaric eating habits. A guest, confronted with a plate of lasagne, sniffs at it quizzically and, after much hesitation, tucks in. With his bare hands. "Now that I've tasted Italian, I know I can live without it," he says.

The West German doctor's wife Gabriela Mendling, who wrote a disparaging book about her neighbours in a village in the East, recoiled at their barbaric eating habits. A guest, confronted with a plate of lasagne, sniffs at it quizzically and, after much hesitation, tucks in. With his bare hands. "Now that I've tasted Italian, I know I can live without it," he says.

The anecdote, and many other similar encounters described by Ms Mendling, provoked outrage through the East, and turned her book into a best-seller in the West. The author has fled to West Berlin and the controversy has abated, but it could reignite at any moment.

Now a study by a leading market research organisation has just established that 12 years after reunification, a wall continues to divide the German palate.

The study shows that the basic culinary law of Germany is that Ossis are far less likely than Wessis to eat fancy food, which covers just about anything that does not swim in fat. While Wessis are fast discovering pasta, Ossis continue to swear by Königsberg meatballs, dumplings and spuds.

The GfK organisation questioned more than 2,000 people across Germany for its portly study Food Trends 2001. A nation of sophisticated eaters certainly does not emerge from the report. In all but the land's trendiest restaurants, the portions are invariably super-human, the calorific content more than generous.

In the year of the great food scares, the wurst has remained the staple diet. But whereas only half the burghers of the West devour a sausage at least once a day, two-thirds do so in the East.

In general, Ossis have more conservative and proletarian tastes. They do eat more fruit and vegetables, though the latter is more likely to be boiled to a pulp than savoured fresh. They also demolish twice as many cakes as Westerners, considerably more margarine, potatoes and tinned food, and twice as much bread.

None of this should come as a surprise to tourists who have been able to sample and compare the delights of East and West. It is nowadays entirely possible to have a decent meal in Hamburg, Munich and even Berlin, at least on the western side.

The cultural and culinary boundary has shifted slightly in the capital, as western money has colonised the centre of east Berlin. No doubt there are good meals to be had further east, too. But, for the less adventurous, it is safer to stay in the West.

The golden rule for those stranded in even up-and-coming cities such as Dresden or Leipzig is to order something simple, and ask for lots of bread.

The beer, fortunately, is as good as the West has to offer. Many a hungry stomach has been sated with bread and its liquid form as the dinner plate is returned to the kitchen still piled high with cholesterol.

Sociologists trying to unravel the mysteries of this very German division are baffled. Some point out that Ossis are so poor they might not be able to afford carpaccio or polenta every day.

Other scholars say the dogged refusal by Ossis to try anything other than the stodgy traditional fare is just another facet of their rebellion against western influences.

Given enough time, though, their resistance is bound to crumble. After four decades of Soviet occupation, East Germans grew rather partial to solyanka, a Russian cabbage dish. You will find it on the menu just about everywhere in the "New Länder".

Who knows, maybe 40 years from now they will all be feasting on lasagne, possibly even with the aid of forks.

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