You know you’re back in Hermann…

Recently I noticed a discussion between some Hermannites on Facebook regarding how you know you’re from Hermann when…you remember Saturday night dances at the Knights of Columbus Hall, or you find someone passed out in your front yard on a Sunday morning during Oktoberfest.

Well, I knew I was back in Hermann when one day, shortly after moving back here from Alaska, I decided I wanted to make chicken curry for dinner.  I headed to one of the grocery stores in town to pick up a couple cans of coconut milk, a jar of red curry paste, and cilantro.  In our small town in Alaska, these items were staples you could always find on the store shelves.  People are travelers in Alaska.  You might run into someone on Main Street that you hadn’t seen for a while, and learn that they just spent a month bicycling through China or had trekked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.  Most people there have pretty evolved taste buds, and the local stores cater to that.

But, back to Hermann…with a hankering for curry, I decided my best bet was the grocery aisle labeled “ethnic foods”.  No coconut milk and no curry paste, but I did find some of that yellow curry powder in the spice aisle. I had forgotten that in this part of the Midwest, ethnic food refers to refried beans and canned water chestnuts.  Lasagna is made with cottage cheese, not ricotta, and the local Mexican restaurant’s specialty is a taco bar.  I can still picture my husband, Mick, taking his first bite of dinner that night, looking up at me, and saying, rather diplomatically, “This doesn’t taste like the curry you usually make”!

And so, if you can’t beat them, join them…which means fried catfish at the VFW on Friday nights, Jello salads, and chicken-fried steak – Mick’s new favorite.  But one traditional German dish has become very sophisticated during the time I was away, and that is bratwurst.  Brats were something we usually saw during festival weekends, smothered in sauerkraut.  They were really just basic links of pork sausage, seasoned with salt and pepper.  Today’s brats have taken on a gourmet twist – you can find sun-dried tomato brats, mushroom & Swiss cheese brats, brats with dried cherries, even brats made with buffalo meat.  My friend, Ralph, makes his own with apple pie filling and a little bit of cinnamon – absolutely delicious!  And, although I didn’t realize that athletic teams had “official meats”, a locally-made bratwurst from the Swiss Meat & Sausage Co. has become the “official bratwurst” of the Mizzou athletics. 

If you’re lucky enough to be in Hermann this weekend, September 23 & 24, you can get a taste of some of the best bratwurst and BBQ at the annual BarBQ and Brats Festival held in the city park.  You will see some serious cooking going on here – it’s a Kansas City BarBQ Society-sanctioned event.  There are also backyard chef competitions, a beer and wine garden, and live entertainment throughout the weekend. 

 

For more information about this weekend’s BBQ & Brats festival, click here.  And, now you can find everything for your brat fix right in downtown Hermann.  The Hermann Wurst Haus is open on 1st Street, producing sausages in a smokehouse in the back of the business.  You can find German potato salad, soups and micro-brews at the deli counter.  And if you want to try your hand at making your own brats, the business plans to offer sausage making classes this winter. 

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Heaven under our feet…

Henry David Thoreau said that heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.  I am not a religious person, although I was raised in the Catholic church to be one.  I had my first communion at St. George Parish here in Hermann.  The group photo shows a collection of shiny little faces, the girls in white dresses and veils, the boys in white shirts and ties – our hands clasped seriously in prayer.  About 10 years later, we were all confirmed together, but we don’t appear quite so serious this time – too many other things occupying the minds of teenagers. 

Even through college I managed to get to mass almost every Sunday.  Then I went to Alaska, took one look at all the incredible raw beauty that hits you from every angle, taking your breath away, and I realized that maybe heaven is already here on earth.  At that point, organized religion seemed, well, just too organized for me.  It became clear to me that what I experienced around me, whether in nature or from the good I saw in other people, provided a much more spiritual connection than anything I could find in a physical church. 

Be that as it may, one of the most spiritual places I have ever encountered is right here near Hermann, and yes, it does include a church.  Northeast of Hermann, across the Missouri River, is the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows at Starkenburg.  Germans settled in Starkenburg in 1847, including some of my own ancestors.  The area includes St. Martin’s Church, the chapel, a grotto, the Stations of the Cross winding through the trees, and other historical features.  My father’s father had a store just up the road in the early 1930’s, one of his many attempts at entrepreneurship.  There is a B&B on the site now,  Les Lavandes, an oddly French name for such a staunchly German area.  I would say my dad’s fondest childhood memories were his years living in Starkenburg, and roaming the church grounds, illicitly shooting squirrels.  Both he and my mother are buried there.

 

It’s not quite accurate to call Starkenburg a religious site, because it is so much more than that.  Calling it a religious experience may steer some folks away from visiting it.  Simply put, Starkenburg’s spirituality is tangible.  You feel it around you – it has a calming effect on your being.  You can believe in anything, or nothing at all, and the place just takes you in without any needed explanation. 

The grounds at the Lady of Our Sorrows Shrine at Starkenburg are always open for meditation, a walk, or a picnic lunch under the trees.  St. Martin’s Church, the museum, and the Chapel are open until dusk each day.  Pilgrimages are held twice a year with a large German meal and mass at the outdoor alter (3rd Sunday in May and the 2nd Sunday in September).  From Hermann, go north on Hwy 19; turn left on Hwy 94 for 4 miles through the village of Rhineland; turn right on P for 2 miles – you’ll see the steeples through the trees. 

School days…

It’s good to see the school bus once again passing our house each morning. Thoughts of riding the bus do not actually bring back the fondest of school day memories for me.  When you grow up in a rural setting, you are certain to spend a majority of your young life on a school bus, but seeing that yellow blur each morning does stir up the nervous energy of first days – anticipating new classrooms, new teachers, new experiences. 

Starting grad school at this stage in my life still brought on that same nervous energy.  I could barely eat lunch the day I headed out for my first evening class on campus.  Would I fit in, would I seem old, what if the professor was younger than me??  Thankfully, he had at least ten years on me, but going back to school at age 44 is a surreal experience, to say the least.  I have t-shirts older than some of my classmates.

The advantage of being an older student is that you already come equipped with some knowledge of life.   Let’s face it, you can’t know much about life until you’ve lived it for a while. Over time you develop a sense of who you are, but I think a lot of that gets determined early on, indirectly picking up our values from home and school.

At the time I entered grade school in 1970, the Hermann school district had three outlying elementary schools for 1st through 6th grades.  These schools were in different rural areas of the school district.  I guess the intention was to keep the younger kids closer to home, eliminating the long bus rides to town.  I attended the Swiss School, named for a tiny community south of Hermann.  We had four classrooms and three teachers for six grades – each teacher taught two grades in one room, and the fourth room was used for the traveling music and art teachers who came once a week. 

Was it the finest primary education I could have received?  Probably not.  We learned the basics – there were no advanced classes for some of us over-achievers.  I read early, and I read quickly.  When Mrs. Scheer noticed, in first grade, that I kept skipping ahead in our reading books, she let me sit in the back of class to read what I wanted while she taught the rest.  No remedial courses either.  The multiplication tables came slowly to me, but that fell to my mom who got me on track with nightly sessions of flash cards.  If any of us had any particular musical talent, it probably went unnoticed.  A music teacher came through once a week, but generally we just sang songs, although I do remember a very young teacher around 1976 teaching us to do “The Hustle”! 

We may not have passed today’s No Child Left Behind program, but we learned a wealth of intangible qualities that have gotten me far in my life.  We learned respect early on, and how to work independently – when one grade was being taught, those of us on the other side of the classroom knew to quietly do our own work.   We learned how to recognize our strengths, and not worry too much about the weaknesses.  I was never very athletic – I wasn’t the kid who was the last to be picked for the games at recess, I was the one left standing.  No one gave me a hard time about it – and I didn’t dwell on it.  I knew that I wouldn’t be the top choice, and that was okay.  We learned to be accepting – bullying or picking on someone was not an option.  And we learned to have fun.  I know there are schools where personal achievement and competition are stressed above all else.  Our teachers gave us the essentials, but they never forgot to let us be kids.  We put on silly Christmas plays, we read Charlotte’s Web every day after lunch, we had hot dog roasts and cake walks at the first PTA meeting each fall.  In other words, we learned how to appreciate the simple things in life…

The community of Swiss is still on the map – just 13 miles south of Hermann on Hwy 19 – and it’s worth the drive. The Swiss Meats and Sausage Co. is located there.  This family-owned business has greatly evolved from the country store where we picked up bread and milk when I was a kid.  Housed in a great log structure, Swiss Meats has become famous for its sausages and smoked meats – it’s even been featured on the Food Network.  And save some room for an excellent burger across the highway at the Silver Dollar.  People come for miles to have a steak on Saturday night, but get there early, or you will have a long wait.