The moment I realized I was experiencing culture shock was in the grocery store about two weeks after we moved to Berlin. I had recently discovered kale and it had become a staple vegetable in my diet. I was trying to eat more vegetables, and kale was all the rage. Before we moved to Berlin, I would go to the local organic food store a few times a week and come back with, among other things, several bundles of fresh kale. As a former picky eater, I was excited to be expanding my food palate, especially with leafy greens that have a lot of health benefits.
The first couple weeks in Berlin, filled with multiple trips to IKEA to furnish our apartment and the Ausländerbehörde (foreigner’s registration office) to get our visas, were so busy we hardly had time to cook, and if we did it wasn’t anything fancy. Finally, things were starting to slow down, and I took a trip to the grocery store. I had been there a few times before, but for some reason I hadn’t noticed how small the produce section was. I was used to the incredible, oversized American produce sections with every imaginable fruit and vegetable available. This produce section, however, couldn’t compare. It was about 5×10 feet and had only a fraction of the diverse assortment I was used to. This in itself was no problem. I knew that there was generally less space available in Germany in comparison to the US. However, what really got me was that I couldn’t find any kale. I put my basket down and ran out of the store in tears.
We looked everywhere. We looked in grocery stores all over the city with no luck. The only real leafy green I could find was romaine lettuce, so we made salads several times a week to make sure we got enough leafy greens in our diet. I also tried to find fresh spinach with little success. My husband, Garrett, tried his best to encourage me and to remind me that we were in a different country and a different continent, at that, and different produce would be available. He reminded me of the great things we did have access to in Germany that we didn’t in the states, and it helped a bit, but I was still disappointed.
I had pretty much given up on kale until one day in mid-November when Garrett and I made our regular trip to the grocery store. All of the sudden, Garrett pointed to something and told me it was kale. I was doubtful at first, considering we had seen several similar-looking cabbage varieties, but none of them were the real thing. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, either. I looked over at Garrett, who was holding the biggest bag of a leafy green vegetable that I had ever seen. It was really kale, and I was relieved. “See, they have kale here. It’s just a winter vegetable,” Garrett told me. My response was something along the lines of, “Okay, we can live here.”
When Garrett told me that kale was a winter vegetable, I realized how little I knew about different foods and when they were in season. I knew the basics, for example, that apples and squash were in season in the fall, but I had no idea that kale was a winter vegetable because it could survive the frost. An important lesson I took from living in Germany was to eat food in season. You can’t live in Germany without knowing what food happens to be in season. In fact, it’s hard to find foods that aren’t in season, and if you do, they’re expensive and don’t look very appetizing. The first food to come in season is asparagus. After the long, cold winter, it’s really exciting when the first vegetable comes in season. It’s almost like a sign that spring has arrived. This time is referred to as Spargelzeit (asparagus season). The restaurants all have a separate menu for all the delicious dishes they make with asparagus, and there are stands everywhere in the city with white and green asparagus, mostly from Beelitz, a region famous for asparagus production. All the stores and independent merchants boast that they have echter Beelitzer Spargel (authentic asparagus from Beelitz). Following all this excitement is my favorite time of the year, Erdbeerzeit (strawberry season). I don’t want to offend anyone here, but you have not lived until you’ve tasted German strawberries! They’re a different species from the ones I’m used to in the states. They’re sweeter, juicier, and seem to just melt in your mouth. One particular company even puts up stands that look like giant strawberries! I could always sense the excitement when either of these foods were in season.
Naturally, with all this excitement and, of course, the scarcity of out of season foods, I jumped on the bandwagon and started eating mostly produce that was in season. I was pleasantly surprised. The foods were fresher and tastier. I bought almost exclusively local produce from the farmers’ market nearby, which is better for the environment because it doesn’t have to travel as far. I was also happy to be supporting local organic farmers. It was fun to recognize the origin of the food from towns nearby. I always preferred the apples from Elstar, a village about halfway between Berlin and Leipzig. One of the biggest benefits I noticed about eating food that was in season was the price. As a young married couple whose income consisted of a teacher’s salary and a student’s scholarship stipend, we were always looking for ways to cut costs without sacrificing the quality of the food. While I do sometimes appreciate the convenience of having any fruit or vegetable available anytime of year, I have certainly come to enjoy eating with the seasons.