Recently, a disturbing image was in my Facebook feed. Not a president, nor a protest march, nor aggressive police caught on camera. It was a sandwich: a slab of Leberkäse between two halves of a Faschingskrapfen. If you’re not disturbed yet, let me gloss that image.

Leberkäse means ‘liver cheese’, but it’s not cheese and has very little liver, if any. A specialty in the southern German-speaking world, it contains finely ground meats baked in a loaf till crusty. Wikipedia says it’s ‘similar to bologna sausage’. 

Leberkäse is usually sliced, grilled, and served on a split roll. In Austria, this roll is called a Semmel (Kaiser roll), and in Germany it’s a Brötchen. With its crown of radiating slits, the Baroque Austrian Semmel is proudly distinct from the sober Protestant German Brötchen with its single slit down the middle.

Faschingskrapfen is a jelly doughnut, a daintier version of what’s now familiar in America as the Polish paczki.In the Wikipedia, it’s found under ‘Berliner Pfannkuchen’ (Berlin pancake). 

Regionally, it’s also called just ‘Berliner’, or just ‘Pfannkuchen’, or ‘Krapfen’ ‘Kräppel’, ‘Krebbel’, ‘Kreppel’, ‘Berliner Ballen’, ‘Fastnachsküchle’, or, doubling down on diminutives, ‘Fastnachtsküchelchen’. Fasching or Fastnach(t) means that (like paczki) they are eaten especially during Carnival. But they’re available year-round.

At first blush, the image of a Leberkäskrapfen looks, innocently enough, like a Leberkässemmel. But when you look closer and notice the powdered sugar and the tell-tale pale ring left by deep-fat frying, it’s clear this isn’t comfort food. 

It’s discomfort food. It’s the diabolical mingling of mutually exclusive categories: savoury and sweet, salty and sugary, meat and dessert, one thing you wash down with cold beer and another thing you wash down with hot coffee. 

In Austria, a Krapfen is almost always filled with apricot jam. The apricot (Marille in Austria) is second only to the fermented grape as the unofficial Austrian national fruit. The Leberkässemmel and Faschingskrapfen are surpassed only by Wiener schnitzel and apple strudel as points of national culinary identification.

For Austrians, then, the idea of a Leberkäskrapfen is especially outrageous. It is an assault on a carefully orchestrated identity in which beloved symbols waltz around each other while keeping a polite distance. 

The responses from my Austrian Facebook friends reflect the depths of this affront: 

‘Oh no. This is just wrong!’ 

 

‘Krapfen und Leberkäs g’hörn net zsam’ (Austrian dialect for ‘Krapfen and Leberkäse don’t belong together). 

 

‘This is the most sinful thing I will lay eyes on this week.’

 

One Austrian writer was repulsed and then attracted by the transgressiveness: ‘Geoff – please – hell’s kitchen – this gets me all mixed up – what a confusion of flavours – yet the synesthetic experience of just looking at it is damned interesting.’ Note, however, that her transgression seems to stop with looking and not progress to eating. 

By contrast, my American friends, most of whom have lived or are living in Austria, are less predisposed to turning up their noses:

‘This actually doesn't look that bad to me. Then again, I never met a food I didn't like (except for shellfish!)’

 

‘That looks delicious!’

 

‘Can’t think of anything I’d rather eat tbh’ 

 

‘I’d do it for the Erlebnis [experience].’ 

 

‘I am in a position to run to Hofer and give it a try. Fusion cuisine.’

 

‘a very juicy crossover - sweet-and-salty-spam’

Even adjusting for irony, this little natural experiment tells us something about the respective cultures. In Austria there is still enough shared tradition and identity that external rules are internalized, and to break them would require a denial of identity, or at least an avant-garde aesthetic experiment. This shared identity is understood as a matter of taste, which gives it a sense of both objectivity and personal choice. 

By this understanding, Americans are deficient in taste, not to say tasteless. In the United States, there is much less shared tradition, and trying to figure stuff out in the absence of internalized guidelines is  a national pastime. Adventurousness itself—a constructive response to anomie—is a big part of U.S. identity. We’re not always sure if something is good or not, but we always know whether it’s interesting. Personal taste is untethered from any claim to an objective correlative. 

Years ago, my wife and I were at a restaurant in Vienna with our nine-year-old son. Obeying his nine-year-old American tastes, he ordered Wiener schnitzel with a Semmelknödel (bread dumpling). The waiter looked surprised, then sceptical. ‘I don’t think we can serve you that. I’ll have to check with the cook.’ He goes to the kitchen and comes back to our table: ‘No, I’m sorry, we can’t serve them together.’ With the cook on his side, he had the backing of the collective wisdom of Austrian culinary culture when quashing a child’s quirky wishes. 

Since then I’ve fantasised about pulling a Jack Nicholson move à la Five Easy Pieces: ‘You serve Wiener schnitzel with potato salad, right? And you serve goulash with a Semmelknödel, right? Well, gimme a Wiener schnitzel, hold the potato salad, and gimme a goulash with a Semmelknödel, and hold the goulash.’

Of course, the Nicholson character doesn’t get his customized order anyway, and he throws a tantrum that would be worthy of a nine-year-old if the nine-year-old were acting like a three-year-old. But his fit of temper has gone down in popular-culture history as an exemplar of sticking it to the Man, or in this case, the Woman, the waitress who “doesn’t make the rules” but damn well enforces them. 

One mustn’t overstress the American rebellion against convention. Much of it is not a reaction against oppressive rules, but a reaction to the rules being kind of vague, no longer part of a shared culture, no longer grounded in taste or tradition. Maybe Nicholson’s character is less bothered by rules per se than by rules that don’t make sense. 

In fact, the most ardent American believers in individualism also seem to be those who yearn for and believe in a standard identity you must adhere to if you even want to be regarded as an individual. If you don’t make use of your personal freedom to conform to some fantasized norm, you’re delegated to the group identity of an other: “liberal”, “homosexual”, “immigrant”.

Still, minor transgressions that don’t really challenge anyone’s identity, but contribute to the myth of individual choice, are everywhere, and are especially put to commercial use. This is the basis of fast-food restaurants featuring short-term specials like the McBLT or Chicken Fries. They allow you to enjoy the unusual without leaving the comfort of the reliable and predictable. 

Case in point: a bar in Hamtramck, Michigan, a traditionally Polish-American enclave in Detroit, advertised a paczki burger before Ash Wednesday. A very juicy crossover, or the most sinful thing this week? Or both?