Today if you are in Hanover and want to order Zigeunerschnitzel (Gypsy Schnitzel), the classic breaded schnitzel topped with a spicy sauce of peppers, onions, tomatoes and mushrooms, you’ll have to learn a new word, and ask for Balkanschnitzel instead. Why? Last fall, the city of Hannover banned the name Zigeunerschnitzel from all its municipal eating establishments in a response to a complaint from the Hanover branch of the Forum of Sinti and Roma, the German association of the Romani people aka Gypsies in English. Hanover was the first city in Germany to prohibit the use of a name for food because of social sensitivities.
On the other hand, the German Association of Manufacturers of Culinary Foods has until now rebuffed the Gypsy Forum’s request to change the name of the condiment Zigeunersauce (Gypsy sauce), saying that the term has been around since at least 1903 when it was included in Auguste Escoffier’s standard culinary reference, Le guide culinaire. The Manufacturers’ Association says it does not make changes when lobbied by only a single group.
The German term, Zigeuner, at one time referred to the Romani people. In contemporary German, Zigeuner has been replaced by “Sinti and Roma”. Zigeuner was also the term under which the Nazis persecuted the Sinti and Roma. More than 500,000 Gypsies perished. When referring to any matters related to members of the Sinti and Roma ethnic groups, the use of Zigeuner is indeed politically incorrect.
The most famous example of a renamed food in Germany is Negerküsse (“Negro Kisses”), chocolate-coated marshmallows. I could fully relate to renaming those because their name was a blunt offensive of the physical traits of an ethnic group. The favorites of my childhood are now called Schaumküsse (Marshmallow Kisses).
But I revolt against the idea to strip the German language of every word with Zigeuner in it. Where do you draw the line? If the foods Zigeunerschnitzel and Zigeunersauce are banned, then the popular 19th-century operetta Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron) by Johann Strauss II will also need to be banned, or at least renamed! Yet, the operetta is performed on numerous German stages every year without making a public ripple.
German cuisine, I must point out, does have many dishes with names that could be viewed as offensive. What about the half-moon cookies called Amerikaner (Americans)? Or, Franzosensuppe (Frenchmen’s Soup)? Russische Eier (Russian Eggs)?
And, moving along to gender-offensive dishes, there is the dessert Versoffene Jungfrauen (Heavy-Drinking Virgins). State employees might take offense in Beamtenstippe (Government Clerk’s Dip), a poor men’s dish with bacon.
Looking beyond food, with the carnival season in Germany nearing, there is Weiberfastnacht (Women’s Carnival). Any use of the old-fashioned noun Weib for a woman is nowadays derogatory, Weiberfastnacht however lives on as a popular event.
All of these are folklorist relics of another time when sensitivities were much lower than they are today. I fully understand the anti-discrimination efforts of the Sinti and Roma, but do not think that banning Zigeunerschnitzel and Zigeunersauce from the German language will make a difference in the way they are perceived as minorities.
Tolerance and respect for other ethnicities do not lie within the name of a dish or food that you eat. They come with the atmosphere in which it is eaten.
PHOTO CAPTION: Delectable macaroons from my kitchen with a rather unappetizing name, Mannheimer Dreck (“Mannheim Dirt”). They were invented by a baker in the first half of the 19th-century following a new fine for dumping human and household waste onto the street.