Max Erhardt did his part to provide warmth for his family during winter’s coldest months. His miraculous deal for two hundred pounds of coal, when his boy was only four, helped his brood to survive the harshest hours of the hard winter of 1947–48. Milder winters followed, but Gisela’s desire for cooked meals, though meager, drove her and her boy to filch wood wherever they could find suitable pieces to burn; having none would mean frigid nights and hungry stomachs. An enforced 2:00 p.m.
daily curfew limited their scavenger hunts to midday hours. Those found on the streets beyond the curfew risked death.
Actual conditions were much harder for the German survivors than the rest of the postwar world imagined. With food in short supply, most of the German population faced starvation. Lack of distribution and delivery means exacerbated the shortage problem. The whole German nation sorely needed a clean infrastructure of roads and an adequate supply of suitable vehicles, but not many other countries cared. Germany, after all, had instigated hostilities—wasn’t she now deserving of her awful conditions?
Mother and son braved brutal weather and encountered other desperate housewives and their offspring as they stood in long lines and waited for their turn to pick from meager piles of greenish potatoes dumped on street corners by local farmers. Garden vegetables grown at home could be cobbled up with other indefinable scraps into potato-based soups.
Tell and his mother, 1947
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Picking garden raspberries that belonged to someone else, however, was hazardous. “My mother and I had to go to a farmer to pick up some eggs. I was maybe five years old then, or four . . . a small kid. During the two-mile hike back home, we stopped to pick some wild raspberries.
Suddenly we hear the sound of a shotgun blast and we stop picking. The farmer shot at us, because we were picking the berries,” Tell related years later.Real coffee—long supplanted by grain drinks—and fresh meats and rich dessert creams, cakes, and other delicacies were definitely off the menu. To make do, some young boys tended rabbit warrens for meals and for bartered exchanges. Erhardt didn’t have that luxury. Instead, too many nights left him hungry and afraid in the dark. “Sometimes I only had a slice of bread in a day,” he remembered.
From Friedemann Erhardt’s constant hunger grew a desire to cook for others. From the age of six, this gastronomic purpose spilled out of the recesses of his creative mind filled with copious images of food, drink, and peoples’ camaraderie. Perhaps unintended, his daydreams mocked der Führer’s nostrum that one was merely a product of gene-pool struggles. Given the combination of a typesetter father with a pediatric-nurse mother, even the Third Reich’s mathematics of superiority could not have added up to a cook or a chef.
Self-doubts, however, tugged at the young boy’s mind: Why are we hungry? What life is this? What’s my place in this world? Where will I find love? Erhardt would struggle for a lifetime to answer such questions. He would search, like the rest of us, for an understanding of the origin of Life—what we like to think and maybe already know is our soul (our self).
As the years would add up, he would follow—pursue most vigorously—his appetite for physical, mental, and spiritual satiety through cooking, food, teaching, wine; all kinds of relationships, classical and country music, fast cars, motorcycles, fatherhood, and scuba diving.
He would read historical biographies and history books; write recipe books; appear on television shows; make cooking and product demonstrations and do volunteer church work with children just to have a full cup of personal peace and understanding. Believe it or not, he would even cultivate herb gardens from childhood to grave—a necessary salve for his emotional wounds.
For now, though, Erhardt was simply a small German boy growing up under difficult circumstances.
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