Kneebread

It was a holiday – a holiday for the Germans in the local town, but not for us kids. We still had to attend school. Arriving at our warm class and shaking off the cold, we settled into our desks – boots and mittens piled against the back wall, coats hung in disorderly rows.

 

A woman was there – a LARGE woman. Almost as wide as she was tall, she beamed at us as the teacher stood a little ways behind, eyeing us nervously.

 

“Gute mor-gun!” the large woman said. I noticed a pile of strange cup-like things piled on the desk behind her. “I’s ist cumin’ to tell you a-boot our holidaze!” She smiled, her cheeks like round, wide apples. Reaching behind her, she lifted the pile of things from the desk and started going around, handing us each one. Taking mine, I looked at it carefully – and cautiously. It was a thick piece of what appeared to be dough, flaky baked and covered with powder. Shaped like a bowl, it was bigger than my fist – almost big enough to be called a hat. Looking up, I could see all the other kids turning them over and over, looking at them curiously. Finishing her distribution, the lady drifted like a large cloud, primly dressed in a flowing print dress, to the front of the room. The teacher smiled nervously, undoubtedly approving of our wary silence.

 

“Dis ist der ‘knee-bread’,” the overly large woman explained, holding up one of the ‘cups’. “Ve make it on – vit? – der knees.”

 

We looked down at the formed pieces of bread. It didn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to see where it had been formed over a knee – especially one as big as hers.

 

“Der ist a legend mit our history fear (for) dis bread,” the woman said, sitting down on the corner of the teacher’s desk. You could practically hear the desk groaning underneath her weight. “It goes back hunrets of years, to der year six huntredt.” She looked around at the class, her smiled starting to sag, then picking back up.

 

“Go ahead! Eat! Eat! It ist fear de celebration! Try it!”

 

We nibbled at the bread – slowly at first, and then more rapidly as the sweetness hit us.

 

“In dis legend,” the woman explained, leaning back, her smile once again regaining it’s former glory as she watched our reaction to the sweetbread, “Der village vas unter seige. Many bad men had surrounded it, and there was no food in, no food out. Der people were starving. De enemy, he knows. He is waiting until the people are too starved to fight. So dey wait many many months.”

 

She smiles again as we picture the quaint little village surrounded by snow and bad men lurking outside – the hungry villagers waiting their doom within.

 

“De prince’s wife – she is fat, no?” She beams at us as if we should know this fact. We are too busy munching on the bread to pay much attention. I try to ignore the strange name: knee bread – and how it was made.

 

“She vaits – vaits until at last the men of the village, they are ready to give up. Der people ist hongrey. Dey ist starvin. But . . . “ Here she leans forward with a conspiratorial tone, her smile turning into a smirk of satisfaction.

 

“Der fat princess, she goes to the wall. She turns around and bares her butt to the troops outside. And do you know what they zee?”

 

We have all stopped eating our bread, finally caught up in this bizarre turn of events. I can picture it: a big wide butt poking out over a castle wall. A chill goes down my spine. A sight like that would’ve probably scared me.

 

“Dey see a FACE. Dey say – dey think: dee’s people, dey are not starving! Look at de fat face! Dere people ist FAT and well fed! Despite the long wait! And so dey give up and go home.”

 

Settling back on the desk, she beams at us again.

 

“And THAT is how a fat lady saved our town. Ve make der knee bread to – celebrate? – comismerate? Dat time. Ve make it by forming it over our knees. Ve bake it und powder it mit der sugar – and now you eat it! Do you want some more!”

 

And we do. We eat that bread and think about this strange tale, this strange foreign land – and all the while I’m thinking about how it was formed; the event it commemorates – and how strange and unusual this place is.

 

Welcome to Germany.

 

Land of the strange and weird, legend and tales going back through the mists of time.

 

So much unlike the land I had come from: the land of pine and wood, humidity and rain.

 

I nibble my bread and wonder.

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