The Dead Grandmother is Dead! Long Live the Dead Grandmother!

It’s Germany’s most violent dish, which is a metaphor for the East I guess?

Are you reading this at lunch? Whoops. Image: SPBer/Wikimedia Commons.

The, um, unusual-looking entree you see above is a ground sausage made of barley, pork fat, crackling, lungs and blood, plus some finely chopped onions and spices. It was popular primarily in the German Democratic Republic—East Germany, land of the Stasi, the Trabi, and rationed food (hence, probably, the use of a bunch of gnarly-sounding offal as primary ingredients to sausage).

Its name—in the immortal words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up—is tote Oma, which is pronounced TOTE-uh OH-mah. At least one put-upon German is using it to make a big important point about post-reunification Germany, but I have to explain some stuff first before we get to him, so make like an East German who wants to get assigned a new apartment, and wait a sec.

First things first: Unlike all of the other excellent German phrases I teach you on these pages (which I assume you are dutifully practicing at home and abroad), tote Oma is probably not something you should parade around saying, because it means “dead grandmother.” It is almost certainly not a direct reference to, but still very vividly evokes, the (SPOILER ALERT) climax of the strangest book I have ever read, KAFF auch Mare Crisium (in English, Boondocks/Moondocks), the 1960 masterpiece by Arno Schmidt, literally the biggest weirdo ever to exist.

Schmidt wrote this book entirely in highly-stylized phonetic German—like, imagine if my verkochte pronunciation guides wrote their own novels and inserted a bunch of ******* and <<<< >>>>>> for the fuck of it, and then think about typesetting that shit in the godforsaken early “Mad Men age”—and that’s not even the weirdest thing about it.

The weirdest thing about this book is that it takes place simultaneously on a farm (in the aforementioned Kaff, or “boondocks”), and, you guessed it, on the Moon, where the people of Earth have relocated after the Cold War turned hot and blew the planet to Kingdom Come. The Moon has been divided between Allied powers (LIKE SOME OTHER PLACE THAT EXISTED ON EARTH, GET IT, IT’S AN ALLEGORY), and life in the American Sector is going very, very badly. Meanwhile, the Russians have somehow created a magical utopia. Except then (here’s the spoiler) we find out that the reason for this is that they’ve literally been cannibalizing their old people into food, and also everything else: shoe leather, paper, you name it. In Schmidt’s dystopia, the Communists kept their society alive by actually killing their grandmas and making them into sausage.

However. Actual tote Oma does not does not contain any grandmother meat that we know of, and likely gets its name (as well as its other name, Verkehrsunfall, fair-CARES-oon-fall, or “traffic accident”) because of, well, you’ve seen it. Anyway, its near-total disappearance from the German palate in the years since the Wende (VENN-duh)—the fall of the Berlin Wall, whose anniversary happens to be today, November 9—is one of the many casualties of a brief but significant East German culture that has gone the way of casual nudity and spying on your spouse.

The post-1990 subsumption of East German culture into West German culture—the latter now just called “German culture”—is a complex tapestry of kitsch and sincerity, of good-riddance and sincere longing for select babies tossed out with the Stasi-torture bathwater, such as the GDR’s far better system of childcare for working mothers, near-nonexistent homelessness, and, well, I guess I already mentioned the casual nudity, but I needed a third thing and it’s important. In the early Aughts, Germans worked through many of these complex feelings the way only they know can: by drinking beer and staring silently at each other, except this time in parties, bars and dancing venues (or, this being Germany, jumping-up-and-down-in-place-venues) that upended the ugly (but sometimes subversively playful) decor, architecture and clothing of the former East—for profit and entertainment in the age of whatever the latest version of late-capitalism is called.

The movement was called Ostalgie—pronounced oh-stall-GEE, the French way, since Germans pronounce Nostalgie more or less like the French do, even though they don’t follow the same rules for Komedie and Tragödie, and I forgot this during my first year of grad school and pronounced it “tra-gö-DEE?” and my professor complained to the Chair that my language wasn’t up to graduate level, and I had take remedial German-for-foreigners, because every once in awhile Germans are tricky little fuckers with their language. ANYWAY, several pop-culturings of international renown emerged from this trend, including the films Good-Bye Lenin (which introduced the world to my boyfriend, Daniel Brühl) and The Lives of Others (which introduced the world to my other boyfriend, the Karl Marx Bookstore).

Ostalgie’s peak popularity ended sometime around the time that everyone realized that many of the former Ossis who weren’t ground up and made into sausage had grown up and turned into serious-ass racists who vote for the AfD and join PEGIDA and all sorts of other terrible bullshit. Enter, then, this interesting pair of dueling op-eds in the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Tageszeitung, respectively. The first, by the Süddeutsche’s Saxony correspondent Jens Schneider (Saxony being, lest I need to remind you, an old GDR “bloc voter” stronghold, shout-out to official New Freund of the Awl™ Hasnain Kazim!), laments the continued problems that “East and West Germans perplexingly still have with each other,” even after all these years:

In the West, people always act like a diagnosis is imminent, asking (and never in a good way): What is wrong with them? Why haven’t they finally become like us? This pathologizing tone shapes the debate after the election, especially in Saxony, Thuringia, or Saxony-Anhalt, where the AfD made a particularly strong showing. They come out with bold, blithe theses about the East Germans, almost as if the entire region had to be sent to therapy.

Schneider’s indignant commentary is more than a little reminiscent of the way certain commentators in our own country chastised certain rest-of-usses for pathologizing the swath of our own electorate that, uh, did a certain thing one year and a day ago. And yet, just as there is a valid argument for characterizing every Trump voter in the US as, if not reprehensible in each and every belief, happy enough to put a reprehensible entity in office, so is there a valid reason to ask, regarding a wide swath of AfD-sympathetic East Germans: What the fuck is wrong with them?

This, kind of, is the thesis of the equally-indignant but also kind of rambling counter-column by public intellectual (and David-Brooks-esque figure, by German standards) Micha Brumlik in the Tageszeitung, whose headline translates to “The Decline and Fall of the Dead Grandmother.” This is, then, where the tote Oma comes in, symbolic as it is of both the lengths to which East Germans went to create feasts from rationed goods and, as Brumlik puts it, the “cannibalistic culture” that has “disappeared with the GDR, and luckily so.” Brumlik doesn’t cite Arno Schmidt directly (Schmidt had a cult following, and I guess Micha Brumlik isn’t in the cult), but clearly the idea that Cold-War era Communism thrived (to the extent it did) by eating its own is a foregrounded aspect of the postwar German Zeitgeist. To that end, Brumlik writes: “Possibly counterphobically, the GDR loved revolting things.” He quotes the “still underappreciated” philosopher Aurel Kolni, who defines “revolting” as that which we “can neither defeat nor flee.”

I find it interesting that neither Brumlik nor Schneider is East German—kind of how neither David Brooks nor Paul Krugman is a down-and-out coal miner—but they both speak with utter conviction about how East-German grandmas should feel (or be or not be eaten). I guess the real takeaway here is that while Germany does most of life better than we do, squabbles in the elite media over the motivations and fates of the Lumpenproletariat seem to transcend borders. That, and you should never, ever send your grandma to the moon with a Russian.