Apfelstrudel in Shanghai

Author: Ursula Krechel
Translator: Mandy Wight

Translator’s Note: The novel Shanghai fern von wo is an account of the experiences of a group of German and Austrian Jewish refugees who have fled Nazi Germany for Shanghai, where they spend the war years. They are from a range of backgrounds, mostly professional middle class, sophisticated Europeans who find themselves in an utterly alien milieu: an unrelentingly hot and humid climate, a city whose inhabitants sell everything and anything to survive, and where their humanist values can find no purchase. The first shock and humiliation for many is that their professional qualifications are useless. This is the case for Herr Tausig, a lawyer. However Frau Tausig, a middle class Viennese housewife, finds that she does have some skills which are in demand ‒ as we see in this extract.

When Herr and Frau Tausig arrived in Shanghai, low in spirits, they had a stroke of luck in the midst of their misery. After the pilot and the immigration officials, a great throng of Europeans and Chinese came on board, well dressed people, some of whom had even brought their own interpreters with them. They pointed to some names and job titles on the list of immigrants, had these people called out and asked them again about their skills. They had jobs to give away. Their certainty that they had something to offer which was much sought after made them come across as saviours and patrons, serious and important, and the passengers, who had been led into a waiting room, immediately stood to attention. Barmaids were much in demand, but Frau Tausig was not a barmaid and had no wish to be one, either. Craftsmen were also needed, especially shoemakers or, better still, made to measure shoemakers. That was a noble profession and it would have remained a noble profession in Vienna as well, if it weren’t for the fact that the person practising it was a Jew. A lawyer: now he’d been dealt a poor hand, an especially poor hand if he was no longer young and was hard of hearing. Even Lazarus never tired of saying that the lawyers were basically as good as done for, because what good was the German or Austrian law in China? He knew of one or two who’d been admitted to the Chinese courts, and a lawyer who’d been a judge in Breslau was hired by the Jewish community in Shanghai to appear before the arbitration tribunal, but that wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

Herr Tausig had prepared for emigrating by taking a course on using a knitting machine. A knitting machine with lots of little teeth clattering away, not just two needles, but a whole set of teeth: it was all the rage. And he’d even brought something with him which was the product of his newly acquired skill ̶ a scarf that he’d knitted for his wife. He twisted it and turned it in his hand, but no one was interested in his product. If only he’d brought a knitting machine from Europe with him! Exporter of knitting machines to the Far East, maybe that would have been the thing, but then he’d have needed a business partner in Austria, and who’d have wanted to go into business with a Jew? Who’d have dared to? And in Vienna towards the end he hadn’t even been in a position to buy a knitting machine. The sea crossing had eaten up every last penny.

Cooking and baking – that covered a lot of ground. Franziska Tausig didn’t look like a cook or a baker, but Austrian cooking had a good reputation. A man called her name, she stepped forward, intending to put her hand out in greeting ‒ a habit she quickly had to forget in Shanghai ‒ but first he wanted just to look at her. He looked her up and down: her hair dishevelled from the sea, her well cut but crumpled navy blue suit with some mother of pearl buttons between the breast and the waist, and he looked at her hands, piano playing hands, and her wedding ring. His eyes swept down to her skirt and the stockings which were much too hot in the sweltering heat of Shanghai ‒ in Vienna a lady wore stockings ‒ then his gaze slid down to her shoes with their little buckles. Frau Tausig felt as if she were being looked over like a horse, she had never been looked at like that before, but she could do nothing about it so she put up with it. Suddenly the man had seen enough and asked her straight to her face: “Can you bake Apfelstrudel? I heard you come from Vienna.” Frau Tausig affirmed first the one question, then the other, and she affirmed energetically. “Come to my restaurant tomorrow,” said the man. “If you can bake Apfelstrudel, a decent Viennese Apfelstrudel, then I’ll give you a job as a cook.”

She had baked apple strudel before, some had turned out well, others not so good, that’s apple strudels for you, fickle young lads with a mind of their own ̶ in a head filled with raisins. Buried deep in the warm belly of the oven they have a fine old time, while the baker, sweating away, goes down on his or her knees before them. Anyone who bakes apple strudel knows this. Can you bake Apfelstrudel? There was nothing for it, Frau Tausig wanted to and had to answer yes one more time. And later, thinking it over, writing about it, she believed she’d confirmed with pleasure, pushing her doubts to the back of her mind. ………….

The restaurant owner kept his word and came to collect Frau Tausig in the early afternoon. The fog had scarcely lifted and she now had to unearth her hazy memories of baking apple strudel. The restaurant where she was taken was a solid, two storey building. He showed her the dining room and then slipped with her into the scorching hot kitchen.

When the future didn’t arrive, the present grew longer. The present meant: tying a large apron round her waist, picking up a blunt knife ‒ there was obviously no sharp one to hand or it was being used for other purposes ‒ bending over a basket of apples, and peeling them in a hasty spiral. The blade carved up the quartered apples and sawed them into thin slices, cut them up so quickly that the apples had no time to turn brown. Frau Tausig had baked cakes for family gatherings, but she hadn’t brought the cookery book with her to Shanghai. Why would she need a cookery book when her entire middle class existence had been shipwrecked? Family recipes were no help there. How many eggs for what quantity of flour, and how much lukewarm water was to be kneaded together with salt and fat‒ all that had slipped into the furthest recesses of her memory. “Have you got cinnamon and raisins and unbleached flour?” Frau Tausig asked the restaurant owner. “We have everything you need,” he answered. Knowing words, and yet unsatisfactory. And her question a delaying tactic, in the hope that she could put the test off to some future point, when it would not all come down to her skills, a future where the inadequacy of the ingredients would conceal her inadequate qualifications. She sieved the flour into a large bowl, made a hollow in the flour, broke the egg into it, sprinkled salt over the top and poured water into the hollow. She did it slowly, carefully, she was aware they were watching her hands. She felt self-conscious, but at the same time rather proud of having an audience. She had to make herself put her hands into the whitish grey mush and rub the flour with her fingers into a crumbly mixture. The mixture stuck between her fingers like flippers, and she had to dust her fingers with flour. She kneaded and kneaded, she kneaded for her life. Frau Tausig shaped the mixture into a ball of dough and suddenly remembered that it had to be left to rest, and so she raised her hands in a calming gesture for all the onlookers, at the same time pointing to the ball of dough. She got the impression that they understood and so the dough rested while she sweated. She sweated even more when she preheated the oven. She sorted through the raisins, picked off the stalks, found little stones between the fruits, remembered how as a child she’d watched her mother baking and begged to be given some raisins (something her son had never done), saw suddenly the greedy child’s hand which had been her own hand, thought of her mother, pleaded with her as if her mother could protect her now, left behind, a helpless old woman, in Vienna, and knew she had to punch the dough, punch it till it made air bubbles, over and over again she picked it up and slammed it down against the edge of the bowl. Flour stuck to her hands and hair. It was a hard job, working the lump of dough, the balls of her thumbs thumping and pounding it over and over again till it became supple, serviceable, a mass which was putty in her hands. She took the dough out of the bowl and laid it on the baking tray. The next step was to roll the lump of dough, now the size of a child’s head, into a paper thin layer without breaking it. First she used the rolling pin, rolling back and forth, till it became a flat sheet as big as a dinner plate, then she lifted it up, feeling her way underneath till her finger tips reached the middle. She stretched the dough, pulled it and evened out the edges, coaxing it to grow and at the same time to thin out ‒ and it all had to be done quickly so the heat didn’t make the dough too sticky. Like a conjuror she stood in the restaurant kitchen, her hands hidden beneath the dough sheet, tugging, pulling, stippling ‒ the imprints of her finger tips visible on the dough’s surface ‒ the dough getting thinner and thinner and the sheet getting bigger and bigger. Paper thin it had to be, so you could read a newspaper through the dough, that’s what she’d learned from her mother. You couldn’t really see what she was doing there in the cavern beneath the dough, she tweaked it, tousled and tugged it from the centre to the edges so that it stretched, she seduced it into growing. It could have broken in any place she touched it, but it didn’t tear, much to her astonishment. It grew and grew: not beneath her hands but in the tent that the dough was forming over her agile hands. She was indeed performing magic. The restaurant owner was watching, and some of the Chinese cooks, who just a minute earlier had been busy with the meat and root ginger, were watching. The rice cook Rudi, an emigrant from Breslau who had been a factory owner before (she found that out later), gave her a wink. A huge cooking pot was steaming and bubbling away while Franziska Tausig worked. The pot washing women had stopped washing up, the foreign baker woman was carefully pulling the dough apart, stretching it, testing it gingerly to see if any holes were appearing but miraculously it stayed in one piece. That was a stroke of luck (or perhaps just chance?). One last check, she could have done with a ruler now, but still she feared it would probably have units of measurement she was totally unfamiliar with: feet or hands or inches or a Chinese measurement which would have baffled her, so she stretched out her sweaty naked arm (she had an idea of the length of her hand and arm up to the elbow and how this would look in the round): yes, that could be the right sort of size for a strudel, she was happy. She asked for butter and was brought a small pot that looked more like a pot for dripping, which made her guess that butter in Shanghai was costly and scarce, which indeed it was. She warmed up the butter to spread a thin layer over the dough; she’d asked for a brush for this. She didn’t know how to say ‘brush’ in English, but she tried by making a brushing movement with her right hand in the palm of her left, calligraphy strokes on a dry surface. The soup cook, twirling his thin, dangling beard, had understood what she wanted straightaway and brought her a small brush, which she sniffed, just to be on the safe side. It smelt a little spicy, but not unpleasant (she didn’t yet know what soya sauce smelt and tasted like, or how it could ruin an innocent dish), so she brushed the surface of the dough, which now looked to her like a pale full moon, with the melted butter. She asked for a cloth and they brought her something which looked like a nappy; she sniffed at that as well and couldn’t smell anything in particular, so she was happy.

She laid the dough out over the cloth, spread the sugared apple slices, the raisins and a pinch of cinnamon over the top ‒ that was the easiest and most satisfying part of the job ‒ and then using the cloth she folded one side of the dough over the other (there you are, no different from putting a nappy on a baby), flipped the ends of the dough parcel over so they were nice and even and the apple juice couldn’t seep out. (The memory of a baby’s body came back to her vividly at that moment: the memory of wrapping a nappy round her son, whom she missed so much, but couldn’t show it without thinking of her husband, and without imagining him being even sadder, stuck in the home on the Ward Road, in one of the men’s dormitories, stuffed full of things ‒ carpets, lamps, photo albums and cutlery canteens ‒ which were now totally useless). And the energetic wrapping and folding of the apple parcel had another purpose, too, which wasn’t exactly hidden, yet no one except maybe Rudi the rice cook was aware of it: I’m getting my husband out. I’m baking so that he doesn’t finish up a wreck like those other wrecks in the men’s dorm. The fact that she, too, was washed up did not occur to her at that moment.

Hands covered in flour are a good preventative measure against the feeling of being washed up, she noticed to her relief, yet on the other hand this kind of relief didn’t relieve her husband, but rather weighed him down and worried him.

She placed her creation on the greased baking tray and pushed it into the oven. Now all she could do was wait and pray that the heat in the oven corresponded to the temperature shown on the switch; the strudel needed just 200 degrees centigrade and 30 to 40 minutes. She looked at her watch and waited with trembling knees. Someone offered her a cup of tea, she sipped at the tea, which tasted bitter. She watched the cooks washing vegetables and boiling rice in a large pan; the knife she’d used to peel the apples was still lying on the table. She offered to help wash the vegetables, crunch, crunch, crunch went the knife into the cabbage stalks and chopped them up small. The restaurant owner looked on, pleased to see the woman could work and saw what had to be done, a plus point for her. Frau Tausig’s nerves calmed down a little as she worked, and the Chinese cook smiled at her, revealing his crooked teeth and his pink tongue squeezing out between them. Rudi, the rice cook said: “On the home stretch now.” And Frau Tausig answered sceptically, “It could still go wrong.” But Rudi came back with “ Even an outsider can go for gold.”

Then an enticing aroma began wafting through the kitchen: a good sign. Frau Tausig took the strudel out of the oven, the cooks gathered round her and the strudel while the owner, who had been drinking in the restaurant with guests in the meantime, was called into the kitchen. Frau Tausig cut the first slice, then portioned the strudel out onto plates, and everyone in the kitchen ate some, while looking at the pastry cook with respect. It was quite a ceremony. She didn’t know what was happening to her, her first Chinese apple strudel was a success and was praised to the skies. Frau Tausig later insisted it was the best apple strudel she’d ever baked in her life. The apple strudel was a lifesaver, a miracle, it seemed to her. She was taken on as a cook straightaway, as the new ‘Missi’ as they said in pidgin English. Franziska Tausig had hit the jackpot, and in no time at all she’d got a job.

From Shanghai fern von wo. Jung und Jung Verlag 2008.