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Lifestyle

Strudel vs. steak: German bakers take South Texas

Urban cowboys in Texas are switching their staple of steak and beans for strudel. Sertan Sanderson finds out how a German couple managed to adapt both their recipes and their identities to the American sweet tooth.

Surfers, sunsets, and sandy shores - the US port city of Corpus Christi may be the closest thing to paradise in the state of Texas. But it doesn't exactly conjure up images of pumpernickel and Black Forest cake. Located just 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of the Mexican border, the typical lunch fare in Corpus Christi focuses on hearty, lardy tortillas filled with Tex-Mex inventions - not apple strudel.

But a couple from Nuremberg has decided to change that. Brigitte and Jürgen Kazenmeyer immigrated to the US almost five years ago to open up the first German bakery in South Texas.

"We had decided to immigrate to the United States and my husband suggested, 'Let's go to Texas!'" Brigitte Kazenmeyer recalls. She says that they wanted to embark on a big adventure before hitting their 50s.

"So we followed our gut feeling. First we grabbed a map and took a good look at Texas. Houston appeared to be too big to gain a foothold, so we just traced the coastline with our fingers until we hit Corpus Christi. A few months later we visited Corpus to check things out there. For me, it was love at first sight."

More bureaucracy than in Germany

So Brigitte and Jürgen Kazenmeyer packed up their bags - as well as their bakery - and set their sails for Texas. Brigitte left behind her grown-up children and set her mind on building up a new bakery business from scratch, but came up against an unexpected hurdle at the outset.

"It all sounded really simple at first and up until our departure we really had no problems at all. But then it took us five months until we could actually open the doors to our bakery. There are so many regulations and licenses you have to comply with in Texas. The bureaucracy aspect was worse in Texas than what we're used to in Germany," she recalls.

Strudelmania's owner Jürgen Kazenmeyer, Copyright: DW/S. Sanderson

Jürgen Kazenmeyer gets up at 3:00 am every day, but says his work is a labor of love

But Brigitte and Jürgen persevered and managed to expand their business fast. Starting with a bakery on Padre Island just outside Corpus Christi, the couple managed to also open a shop in town and recently purchased a food truck to cater at events. Despite a dedicated fan base of German expats, Brigitte says that most of her customers are Americans.

"The majority are locals. There are many who come from the local Naval Air base. Many of them used to be stationed in Germany at some point, so they got accustomed to the German bread. And since we also offer German meals like Jägerschnitzel, Leberkäs and Spätzle, many keep coming back to see what's new. It's all very German, which is exactly what our customers appreciate, but there's also a lot of innovation going on." she explains.

Feeding cowboys and soldiers

Then Brigitte points at a tray packed with inviting pastries, explaining that the extensive menu of strudel dishes provides the backbone of the business. When asked what the "cowboy strudel" is filled with, Jürgen Kazenmeyer jokes that it's filled with cowboys. What else?

Studelmania's manager Brigitte Kazenmeyer, Copyright: DW/S. Sanderson

Brigitte Kazenmeyer makes sure her customers don't have a sugar deficit

"Just kidding. We picked up some local flavors and created the cowboy strudel, which is a savory strudel with beans and bacon," he says. Brigitte adds that other than the apple and poppy seed strudels, all other varieties were inventions from the past five years in Corpus Christi. The constant interaction with and feedback from customers provides a treasure trove of new ideas, Brigitte says.

"A customer will come in and say something like, 'Why don't you guys try a strudel with blueberries. That would be great.' And so we experiment a little and come up with a new recipe. Coming up with new savory strudels can sometimes be challenging, but the sweet strudels are our bestsellers anyway. They're my personal favorites as well," Brigitte Kazenmeyer muses.

A stranger in a stranger's land

But being in the business of sweet delights isn't always easy for the couple from Nuremberg. Leaving their family behind, Brigitte asserts that she couldn't have survived without modern technology. She says Skype and Facebook made it easier to stay in touch with her children, while intimating a moment later that she still felt lonely at times.

A display of bakery goods at Strudelmania, Copyright: DW/S. Sanderson

The Kazenmeyers sell everything from German bread to hale and hearty stews

"We built this up from scratch. My husband and I only had each other all along. And that's still the way things are. We managed to make a few new friends here and there, but we work really hard and so we don't get to socialize much. There's just a sense of estrangement at times, whether I try to relate to people here or try to connect with friends in Germany. That's the one thing that makes it all a bit difficult sometimes," she tells DW.

While rearranging some pastries on display, Brigitte reflects beyond her own story and says that her situation might not be all that unique after all: "Look at all the refugees arriving in Germany now. They will all be going through the same motions. And they even have much less than we did. There is nothing to prepare you for a massive endeavor like this, crossing countries and cultures. All you really have at the end of the day is your family."

But then she adds that South Texas has become her home and that she "wouldn't change it for the world.

"The sun shines year round. What more can you ask for?"

Caught between two worlds

Brigitte and Jürgen have not had a chance to venture outside Texas since they immigrated to the US in 2010. The only real travel they've been able to enjoy in all that time was when they recently went back to Germany for the first time in five years to attend their daughter's wedding - a tricky undertaking for Brigitte Kazenmeyer.

"I just couldn't get used to being back in Germany. Everything seemed so strange. Germany had not changed much in the past few years, but I had changed a lot. There I was, surrounded by my loving children, and I found myself missing Corpus Christi. Isn't that crazy?" she wonders.

"But after 10 days I began to embrace Germany again, which has a lot of good things going for it as well. It is a beautiful country, and people are so much more conscious of the consequences of their actions there. Here, take a look at this," she says and picks up a styrofoam to-go box, in which she sells her baked goods.

Food truck outside Strudelmania, Copyright: DW/S. Sanderson

The Kazenmeyers have recently added a food truck to their business

"I think this whole garbage industry in the US is just terrible. Why do people need so much packaging for their products? There's something that's quite different in Germany. We don't want all this rubbish in Germany, but Americans wouldn't give up their boxes and bags for anything. We tried to introduce smaller paper bags to our customers a few years ago, but they squarely rejected the idea. So, we do have our differences, and I am reminded of my heritage every day."

Outside the building, a German and an American flag greet visitors to "JB's German Bakery and Cafe" as they drive up to the parking lot, while inside the cross-cultural theme continues with German beer mugs for decoration but Texas-sized portions to keep the punters happy.

Jürgen Kazenmeyer says that his "family size" portions had always been his signature style even back in Germany, so he had no trouble adjusting to Texas. Brigitte adds that there's nothing to be said against a bit of cultural appropriation.

"We adapted well to Texas. But then again, German culture does play a big role in Texas. If you scratch beneath the surface, you will find a rich history of German settlers. There's even a Polka-dancing club here," she points out. "Texans are proud of their German roots. And we're proud to call ourselves Texans."

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