EISBEIN - Where the Skate comes from - by Jack Thiessen

In post Second World War Germany everything except the human imagination and thus story telling was in short supply. My educational route had deposited me in Kassel, an old city full of the emptiness and despair of destruction.

A street car station at the Wilhelmsplatz daily took me along with other passengers on our trip to the Wesertor Gymnasium, the German equivalent of our high school, albeit a bit superior if you believed your German colleagues.

Human destruction on a massive scale now everyday before and around me induced reflection; predictable repetitive bad human behavior on a wide scale does that. "A war to end all wars" promised from the very first deadly human skirmish, when found out to be a lie will numb you or blaze a path for the reflective among us.

Two weeks after my arrival in Kassel, I asked an Altphilologe, a bit of a philologist of the Old School one might say, why it was passenger but passage, and messenger but message and he, (Sehmsdorf was his name), after clearing his throat in the manner of such men who communicate superiority even when arranging sputum in their guttural cavity, viewed me from a lofty Gothic perch before his learned demeanor took us for a collegial walk. He explained metathesis to me and that morning on a streetcar # 3 meandering around recent death and repairs in Kassel, a whole world of former cloudy intrigue had been revealed to me and I knew why in my language we said borm when we presumably meant borrem or even Brunnen or Born and why and how to burn was related to brennen and why Bernstein meant burnt stone, but most likely amber, and all leading to the conductor and composer of Candide and how words can be related just as ideas and people, in any case, and that the fascination of tracing the roots of them all survive and supercede, indeed overcome human foibles, even evil, including the boredom of the predictability of badness, if not depravity itself. When Herr Kollege Sehmsdorf then explained that metathesis was similarly used to describe an "r" meandering randomly around inviting attention like a loose tooth in the maw, as for instance in Warze, wart but wraut in my language of choice and of mother my surprise mounted. Imagine, I surmised, all the things I knew without even realizing them. "Oh my" I almost exclaimed in German.

Herr Sehmsdorf suggested that if I were ever to receive a few dollars from "das reiche Amerika" he would not be above accepting an invitation to dinner, an Abendbrot of Eisbein on any given Tuesday night at a restaurant to be named when time, circumstances and Geld von Amerika would be in place. He, Sehmsdorf, had a relative auf dem Lande, in the countryside, somewhere, who butchered a pig or two every Tuesday and supplied the restaurant with Eisbein and other delicacies known to the German culinary craft. I believed him.

"And at the Eisbein dinner" Sehmsdorf promised, "we shall explore other Sprachländer, countrysides of language", as he said, "and you will be richly recompensed (sic) for your pecunia and your interest."

I was not fortunate enough to have a reicher Onkel in Amerika but I had an aunt in British Columbia who occasionally parted with hard earned currency in modest instalments provided you promised to frequent a church on Sunday mornings. And since I quickly became bribable even though she, Tante Anna reminded me that the money was of the hard earned, sweat-of-the-brow from having picked raspberries sort, I was one day in a position to exchange ten dollars for 41 German marks enabling me to invite Herr Kollege Sehmsdorf for an Eisbein dinner.

While in Kassel, I had quickly come to understand that if you can't, or refuse to, think in historical terms in Europe you best go home or change your ways. A few weeks later I also came to understand that the educated set in all of Europe look for future guidance in their past. That is why museums flourish and antiquity is watered and tended like a rose bush (or a promising calf if you are Mennonite).

The Eisbein arrived, opulent and succulent, and steaming hot with mashed potatoes, sauerkraut, mustard and no-nonsense steins of beer. Pork hocks strutting their stuff and Sehmsdorf eager to likewise show off his stuff by way of the New World Verbal Symphony. He did so and he did it well; it is now almost fifty eight years later and that heaping plate of pork knuckles, sumptuous and promising still stand before me on a heavy wooden table, Gasthaus Herrlicher Schweinereien (Piggishly Glorious), with beer so tasty that no one need convince you that God Himself invented the brew; and then came the message.

In normal non-war times, Germans have most of their relatives in the respectability of the academic realm; only in hard times do they admit to relatives auf dem Land. Mennonites similarly discriminate only that normally their relatives congregate close to the pulpit or have monied three-garage mansions while all have relatives dotting every countryside.

But back to the meat of the matter, Eisbein and attendant dishes. "Bein," explained Sehmsdorf "is the linguistic forerunner of the English bone. And while the off-white opulence of this cut of pork resembles ice, Eis, that origin is misleading, indeed wrong.

"I should know because my forebears hail from the Masurian Lake Area of East Prussia. And it was my grandfather who remembered that occasionally his grandfather in winter strapped to his shoes a pair of full sized pork knuckle bones, fashioned for the fit underneath his shoes and then he zipped around the ice with this set of ice bones or Eisbein. And if they did it, you can be sure that grandfather's grandfathers dating back to the time when time was barely invented did the same.

"And now you know how the skate came to be." And then I knew. I still do.

© 2008 Jack Thiessen