The Mighty Döner

Oh the döner…that delectable yet dishearteningly unhealthy comfort food
has come a long way from back-alley food fix for Turkish guest workers
of Berlin’s Kreuzberg district to a global fast food power house worth
€ 2 billion a year.

Growing up in midsized city in Germany’s industrial south-west close to
Stuttgart in the mid 1980’s, I am no stranger to the Turkish “sandwich”
filled with slivers of roasted meat, packed with cabbage, onions,
lettuce and slathered with sauce. Matter of fact, I will venture onto
say that the döner has saturated childhood memories of most Germans
born in West Germany during my generation and beyond.  

In the mid-eighties, however, things were substantially different. 
Please indulge the nostalgia. The whole döner industry had not yet
become industrialized – for lack of a better word. Meat was still cut
by hand off the giant rotating columns of packed meat without the help
of those hand held gadgets which dispense perfect paper-thin ribbons of
meat and seem to be a staple in the industry today (and leave one
feeling rather cheated as the general sense of value and that meaty
mouth feel just disappears). Döner had soul. Back then, the German
urban landscape as a whole had not become saturated with Dönerbuden or
döner stalls. It was a treat to have döner once a week for around 2DM
and there wasn’t much else to choose either – we didn’t have a
McDonald’s until the early nineties.  Selection of the döner variety
did not exist either as chicken döner, durum döner (döner in wrapped
form), lamacun (Turkish “pizza”) and all those other staples were not
yet available. Plus, if there was a larger space for dining attached,
you would never see anyone sitting down and enjoying kebab (basic meat
served on a platter with bread – the precursor to the döner) of any
kind. Today it’s a completely different story: döner can be found at
every corner and in every shape and form and is being consumed in
unbelievable proportions.

McDonaldization of kebab

Why is that? To be blunt: the proliferation of the fast food industry
through the likes of McDonald’s and Burger King that have significantly
changed patterns of nutrition in Germany and elsewhere in Europe since
the first store opened up in München in 1971 (which is incidentally the
same year in which the döner was invented in Berlin). The resulting
“McDonaldization” left its mark in almost every facet of German
society, hastened by economic growth and increased financial means.
Supermarkets became the primary outlet for food shopping, the taste for
“foreign” foods such as pizza, döner, hamburgers, French fries and the
Chinapfanne (Chinese stir fry) flourished and little by little,
traditional German eateries began to lose ground.  The primary concern
back then was fast, cheap food and this has changed little today. How
could German eateries possibly compete given the hearty nature of
German food which requires significant preparation time and consists of
expensive ingredients (the bratwurst naturally being exempt)? These
proceedings coupled with Germany’s increasing ethnic diversity (read:
growing Turkish population) brought greater exposure and this in turn
led to the increased popularity and social acceptance of kebab
consumption. The first non-Turkish customers to dine on döner in Berlin
in the early 1970’s were youngsters, ready for new experiences and
programmed to rebel against their elders who considered it quite
uncouth to eat with ones hands. A lot has changed since then:  around
300 tons of döner meat is consumed in Germany annually – 40 tons in
Berlin alone. The sandwich has become an undeniable and integral
feature in Germany’s gastronomic sphere with significant ramifications
for the Turks in Germany themselves as they are solely responsible for
creating the industry out of their culinary heritage and nurturing
through expansion over the decades without the use of advertising
campaigns. It hasn’t been a smooth ride however. Success breeds
jealousy and greed. In the mid-nineties some pretty vulgar urban
legends were spread regarding a “special” ingredient in the yogurt
sauce – you’ll have to figure out which extra additive it was for
yourself.  Around 2005 the industry was plagued by several scandals
involving döner meat wholesalers who continued to sell their wares
despite the meat being expired for years on end, but this scandal only
created a slight disturbance in overall consumption before rebounding.
Seems like döner eaters just can’t be dissuaded.

Echte Döner

The mighty döner can’t be tarnished. It’s become a unique food staple,
a mediator between peoples and cultures and a sandwich with a staunch
international following. There is even a movie made about the subject,
see Kebab Connection (2004). My friends in the United States, England
and Finland all praise the German döner for being the best tasting and
most price-worthy of all. How ironic. In Turkey, döner is a simple
sandwich comprised of a piece of white bread much like a baguette
filled with meat and a pickle or so as garnish. No sauces, no salad,
nada. I myself was pretty shocked to learn of this and very much
disappointed. But that’s just not how things are done in Turkey.

The döner, I’ve grown up with along with millions of others is a hybrid
version that is slowly coming full circle much like the ubiquitous
California roll that can now be found in Japan despite being created in
California. Hybrid or not, food being the universal equalizer, has
brought our cultures together in a fashion that was not fathomable
forty years ago. If the United States is a melting pot, Europe is a
grand smorgasbord filled to the brim with the most diverse and
delectable culinary offerings available. These cultural and culinary
exchanges will carry on and continue to make a difference though it may
be hard for some to acknowledge the capacity of such soft power to make
any type of difference in a world system where hard power is believed
to be the only harbinger of change.  I know. I’ve seen it happen before
my very eyes. The döner is mightier than the sword.

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