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Countess Sybil Schönfeldt wearing glasses and a red scarf.
Countess Sybil Schönfeldt has written cookbooks over decades for the frazzled mom and crazy kid alikeImage: Erwin Elsner/picture alliance

Meet a 95-year-old food influencer

Klaudia Prevezanos
June 8, 2022

Food influencers are all the rage. Yet with her cookbooks, Countess Sybil Schönfeldt has influenced German cuisine since the 1960s. A conversation about food trends, food products and hunger during the war.

https://p.dw.com/p/4CNOv

Cooking has been hip now for quite some time, with cooks, chefs and food influencers catapulting to international fame. They often promote new trends in cooking, eating and dining: vegan, Ayurvedic, regional food sourcing or "clean" cooking, just to name a few. Countless new cooking shows and recipes are shared on television, in books, and of course, on a variety of social media platforms.

As an author, Countess Sybil Schönfeldt has been writing about cooking since the 1960s. She has influenced German cuisine with her columns, recipes and cookbooks. Today, she would be called an influencer. In February 2022, the German author turned 95 — but that still hasn't slowed her down from working.

Given the span of her lifetime, she has experienced much. On Russia's current war against Ukraine, she says: "It's actually unbearable."

In her 1984 autobiographical novel, "Sonderappell" (Special Appeal), she recounts the end of World War II, which she experienced as an 18-year-old. As a so-called "Arbeitsmaid" (work maid), the German with Austrian roots was called up for the Nazis' "Reich Labor Service" — a compulsory service for young German women and men during World War II. Among other things, she worked in a munitions factory with Ukrainian women who had been displaced by the Nazis as forced laborers.

Mahlzeit! All about German food and eating habits

As early as the 1980s, Schönfeldt was cooking vegetarian food and publishing recipes for children or cookbooks for working women. Her latest book is titled "Kochbuch für die kleine alte Frau (Cookbook for the little old lady).

The grand old lady of the German culinary arts has also published literary cookbooks on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Mann and Astrid Lindgren, the latter with whom she was friends.

DW: First of all, congratulations belatedly, Ms. Schönfeldt, you turned 95 on February 13 this year. Did you celebrate? 

Sybil Gräfin Schönfeldt: For this birthday, I said I didn't want to have a big party; I'd wait until I turned 100. Then I'll throw another party. I was at home and anyone who wanted to, could come during the course of the day. It was wonderful: all the people who came and what they brought. I sat lazily in the armchair and the younger generations arranged everything for the guests.

This interview was supposed to be about cooking and German cuisine. But at 95, you are also a contemporary witness; you were 18 years old at the end of the Second World War. That's why I would like to know, after Russia's attack on Ukraine in February, how you feel about the fact that there is war in Europe again? When you hear about the attacks and the fighting, and the hardship?

At that time, we were glad that we had survived the war — whether it was the soldiers or us work maids, who also wore uniforms and sometimes got caught in the lines of battle. When you've been through that, you can't imagine that people have to experience something like that again. It's horrible. It's so horrible that it tears your heart apart.

In an interview with the German weekly "Die Zeit" in November 2021, you were asked whether you particularly liked certain food fashions. Your answer was: "No, I've always been indifferent to that. After the war, while on the run, even frozen potato peels with first traces of mold was seen as absolute wonderful food — that leads to another perspective on such topics." Nevertheless, you attach a lot of importance to good food and good ingredients. Your cookbooks also reflect that. Why is that not a contradiction for you?

Quite the opposite. The war and the post-war period created a hunger in Germany and throughout Europe that had never occurred at all in normal times.

There was always something to eat in Germany during the war. The German Reich of that time radically cleared the food from the conquered countries and brought it to Germany so that the Germans had something to eat.

But another aspect is that food is the gift of God in the Biblical sense. Wine and bread, these are the two images that denote food. And whether it's potato skins or whether it's a wedding feast, a birthday or Christmas dinner, it's still the same food. Which should be treated with love, with care and with knowledge.

People sitting around the table, eating and drinking wine.
Feast or everyday meal — ingredients should be prepared carefully, says Schönfeldt, and can be enjoyed by many!Image: lev dolgachov/Zoonar/picture alliance

When you say that the war and post-war period gave rise to hunger, do you mean the so-called "Hunger Winter" in 1946-47 in Germany and Europe? 

After those rather nasty one or two years, people ate as much as they possibly could. Because there was a need to catch up — in one's mind, but also the body demanded it.

Traditional German cuisine is considered meaty, heavy and not necessarily fresh and healthy. Is that still true today?

No, not really. In recent decades, internationality has become commonplace. One can no longer speak of a typical German cuisine at all. It has mixed and that is actually very nice.

For example, Mediterranean vegetables and seafood brighten up the German offering noticeably. Rice and pasta have also become commonplace. When I was a child, rice was still something quite extraordinary.

'Meat' the Germans

What you're describing is called fusion food these days combining different international cooking and cuisine influences, an international trend that has basically been around for a long time. Are the developments in German cuisine all good, then?

Hmm. Pizza is eaten everywhere where pizza is offered. Some of these things are, of course, horrendous habits. We drink from paper cups and eat from paper bags. You get the impression that some people don't even have any dishes at home anymore. It's a kind of "non-culture."

Has something disappeared from German cuisine that you miss? 

No. I'm just glad I don't have to eat turnips anymore. In the post-war years, when gas and electricity lines in the cities were still broken, community kitchens were set up. There you would get a bucket of rutabaga soup one day, rutabaga vegetables the next, and rutabaga puree the day after that. I try not to eat turnips anymore.

There are big stars in the international cooking world today who have their own cooking shows, their own book series and schools depending on their particular penchant. Do you look into the new cooking trends?

Yes, and sometimes I get mixed up with people who cook vegan. I myself cooked vegetarian food for my youngest son. And you can make delicious dishes out of all these fashion foods. I continue to collect quotes about food in German, American or other literature for the annual "Literary Kitchen Calendar." In the process, I've noticed that food did not really appear in literature until the last century. Before that, it is only described as a splendid meal, a wedding feast or something along those lines.

The mention of an everyday meal is a modern feature. Then, one sees how food has become fixed in the minds of the authors over time. It's also interesting to see what authors either think the topic is chic for their story or that they use it to characterize a person because they always cook this or that.

One year, there's suddenly apple pie everywhere in literature. Or another year, Wiener schnitzel makes its grand entrance: All kinds of stories in which people eat or fry Wiener schnitzel.

Many popular chefs are also very active on social media, as so-called influencers. You yourself were already cooking vegetarian food in the 1980s. You also wrote recipes for children or cookbooks for working women back then. Would you also describe yourself as an influencer?

Well, you can call anyone an influencer who has something to show and influences others with it. Every cookbook author influences the cuisine of those who accept their invitation to join them, so to speak.

The recipes and books you published were often oriented to certain phases of life and the associated demands of life, particularly for women, for children, for families. One of your recent publications was titled "Cookbook for the Little Old Lady." Did you have a phase of life for which you most enjoyed cooking?

Yes, of course — when my kids were young and my friends were still alive, and I cooked huge meals. Hosting family and friends was the nicest thing. It was always a lot of fun for the kids, too.

Once upon a time, we set up a dining room table in the hall, for eight or 12 people. I had set the table with white plates. And my youngest son, who got a whiff of it all as he passed by on his scooter looked at the table and silently rode back to his room. He came back with red, blue, yellow and green wooden building blocks. With them, he built a little sculpture on each plate so that it looked nice.

Apparently, he thought everything looked a little too simple beforehand.

Yes, and I didn't change things either — because I thought it was so nice for a child to understand what a table set for friends and guests means. It is the center: when the guests come and are happy about it or are completely amazed.   

 

You'll find more from  Meet the Germans on YouTube or at dw.com/MeettheGermans.

 

This interview was conducted in German.

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