Spurious history of apple strudel
In February, Sophie and I celebrated Apple Strudel day with our friends Tom and Rachel. We were asked to bring our account of the origins of apple strudel. Little did we know we were soon to purchase a book, hidden within the pages of which was a first-hand account of the biggest food fraud imaginable. Here are those pages:
I worry I am worried that my time is short. It is time to – I have to confess; take the credit.
It was a dreadful time for the Verkehrsbüro – the Austrian National Travel Agency – how do you remove the stain of the role we played in the early 20th century? World War I was forgivable, I think – we blamed our involvement on the Hungarians and set up our own state and that was that. How were we to deal, though, with the rise of an Austrian to the top of Nazi Germany? How could we be blamed for a man born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when Austria wasn’t yet- when we hadn’t yet- I mean, it wasn’t fair. Thirty years before our state was born, he was born, and thirty years after our state was born, the Verkehrsbüro was trying to clean up our reputation from being known universally as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler.
In 1947, I was appointed senior under-manager of the Braunau am Inn branch – it has been my job, my honour, ever since. The centre of the maelstrom, hurricane, quiet little town, 1,000 years of history and all anyone knows is that man and that we bore him. Birthed him? (My English, you know…)
After the war and our independence from Germany, the Verkehrsbüro was frantically assessing our hotels and restaurants. We needed money and no one brings money to a country like tourists. But the macabre disaster gawpers were all going to Germany or Poland and the people who came to see where Hitler was born were not the sort of people we wanted so we counted all our hospitality and evaluated them and we knew we could offer so much if people could just overlook our tiny part in the madness of the past decades.
Everything was in place but people weren’t coming.
We needed a hook. What did people know about Austria? Nothing. We needed branding. A national costume, a national dance, food, drink, pastimes, anything. My section was to work on food. Colleagues were reinforcing the meagre pickings we had – 17 musicians were recruited to forge hundreds more waltzes by Johann Strauss – they did so well they had to invent Johann Strauss Jr: no one would have believed all these accomplished pieces were the product of just one man. We had skilled historians and forgers (not all those skills from the wars went to waste) who could insert myriad references and sources into existing documents and dictionaries and encyclopaedias. We recruited agents in MI6, the CIA, Mossad, KGB – in return for some really not very important details of Austria’s postwar military situation, these spies – who were rewriting their own history books anyway – would drop in a bit of Strauss or Schubert into their cultural references to reinforce our work abroad. Music, art (not as successful), science (Freud was real enough but we invented a few more case studies and such, not to mention the ‘Freudian slip’), literature (we didn’t really think anyone would buy the name Rainer Maria Rilke, but it took off anyway thanks to our battery of poetry-generating machines) – and food.
So what was our national dish? Well, you know, we’d only been a nation for thirty years and there wasn’t a lot of food around at that time, so what were we to do? Tafelspitz, Kasnudeln, even Wiener Schnitzel was going to struggle to attract visitors without some back-up. Everyone loves a pudding, though, don’t they? Especially the English and Americans. So we looked east and thought about baklava and how we could modify them, but bigger, better, more substantial and iconic. An army of pastry chefs was set to work, churning out pastries of all shapes and sizes. I tasted most of them but our junior over-manager, Edvard “Eddie” Eder, had the final say. Our masterpiece was a triumph, and probably would have taken off on its own if we had baked it for fifty years – but we didn’t have fifty years: we had just a few months by this time to instigate our covert cultural revolution. Eddie died before we got very far but we named it after him (in a way: strudel is old German for eddy or whirlpool – well, it isn’t but we have told enough people that that it feels true now).
Of course, when we first made it we used cheese for the filling and while in the end this was considered a useful and convincing variation, it turned out that Chancellor Figl’s favourite food was apple and it was lucky that someone told us this before we submitted our plans for his approval in 1949.
There followed five years of fevered work, seeding references to “Apple Strudel” in all our major libraries and archives, teaching the recipe to hoteliers and restaurateurs and housewives throughout the country, even going beyond our borders to ensure its wasn’t too geographically constrained to be creditable. I personally created the entry in the Viennese City Library – a brilliant (if I may say so) handwritten recipe which I dated 1696. Audacious, is how this was described, but I knew we would need the appearance of strong historical antecedents if we were to be believed. A team of archivists went through the correspondence and diaries of past Austrians and took every opportunity to insert references to our apple strudels. We made Emperors fat on strudel, plucked varieties of apple at random for our famous chefs to recommend using, and – to pacify those who thought a pastry case with apple inside too simple to be a national dish – we created pedantic requirements for a ‘genuine’ Austrian apple strudel – “the pastry must be thin enough to read a newspaper through” – one of my subordinates later suggested this enter folklore as “read a love letter” through: I don’t know how well this circulated in truth but I have heard one or two people mention it so perhaps he has done well.
Of course, we were lucky that Austrian café culture was burgeoning. It meant we could introduce strudel across the nation without much difficulty. The power and influence of the Verkehrsbüro was such that no man, woman or child in the hospitality industry could dare contradict our plan to install the strudel as our national dish. They would be stripped of their stars and rosettes and shunned by all visitors.
You think I should apologise for this deception? I will not! Instead of leaving my beloved Austria to fade slowly beneath the dark clouds of our role in 20th century history, I created a national myth, a sweet to counteract the indigestible facts of our country’s past. On that strudel foundation was built the entire Austrian tourist industry – you think Strauss Jr and Rilke could have done it without strudel? Don’t believe it. Stomachs dictate tourist destinations, not high culture.
In 1955, when the Österreich Werbung – our new Austrian Tourist Office – was established, I was a natural to take the role of director and only political machinations kept me out of the job and in Braunau. They gave me a ridiculous pension and I’ve kept quiet. Until now. Now I want just someone to know about the greatest fraud of all time. The Apple Strudel!