27 December 2007

Family Mystery

Can you help us solve a family mystery?

When I was growing up, my mother would occasionally make a very special dish for us: Stats

She had learned to make stats from her mother, who learned it from her mother and so on. The only thing we know for certain is that it is an Austrian peasant dish. Essentially stats is an extra egg-y pancake batter than is then fried in a bit of oil. Sometimes it would have chunks of apple in it. We would serve it for lunch or dinner, sprinkled with powder sugar and always with a side of dill pickles. (To cut the sweet, of course!)

Here is a photo of stats (with raisins and roasted almonds added):

It is a very important dish in my family. Mostly because there is little remaining from my maternal grandmother. (Pictured below with my grandfather from an undated photo taken while on vacation in New York City.)

Grandma Rausch was the daughter of immigrants from Vienna, Austria. Although she was born in the United States, most of her cooking was Austrian in nature. She learned the recipes from her mother and she kept all of them in her head. Few were ever written down.

She always meant to write down these family recipes, but she just never got around to it. Unfortunately, she died unexpectedly when she was 54 years old. When she died, many of the family recipes were lost with her.

Some of the recipes, such as stats or Sauerbraten or Apfel Strudel were learned by my mother and her sisters, cooking side by side with my grandmother while they were young and living at home. But none of them learned more than a few.

Since my grandmother's death in the 1960's, they have tried to recreate many of the recipes that are now gone. They have poured through German & Austrian cookbooks, trying out recipes and making small changes to recreate the taste and smell of their childhood. In some cases, they were successful. But in many cases, no information could be found.

Part of the issue is that although my grandmother was fluent in German, she never taught the language to any of her children. Primarily because German was the language the adults used when they didn't want the children to understand what they were saying. But perhaps also because during that time period (between the 2 World Wars), you didn't really want to advertise that you spoke German.

So in many cases, we do not even know what the dishes are really called. Because my mother and her siblings did not speak German, the German names of the recipes have been warped or lost completely. For example, there is one dish that the family calls "baby fingers" because they are small noodles served with gravy that are about the size of a baby's fingers. But not spaetzle!

Stats is one of those dishes. Over the years we have repeatedly tried to find the history and origins of this dish. We have done countless searches in cookbooks, asked virtually every Austrian we came into contact with and researched it on the internet.

The first break-through came a few years ago on a visit to Münich. I described the dish in detail to Laurie, an American who lived in Münich for nearly 20 years. She thought it sounded like Kaiserschmarrn. It is very close. Indeed, the closest we have ever come.

While my parents were visiting earlier this month, we took the opportunity to taste Kaiserschmarrn in Münich, Nuremburg and Salzburg. My mother was thrilled to have gotten so close. But we both agreed it is not quite right. And we couldn't figure out where the name "stats" had come from. Obviously it is the wrong name, but could it really have warped so much from Kaiserschmarrn to stats? In just a generation?

After we returned from the Christmas Market (and Kaiserschmarrn) Marathon, GLH happened to mention it to an Austrian co-worker.

"Ah," the co-worker said, "Stats actually sounds more like Sterz. Also called Mehlsterz." So I immediately did some research. Sterz is fried flour with no eggs, milk or sugar. So not the correct recipe, but perhaps where the name originates?

Further research revealed a recipe called Mehlschmarrn, which is almost identical to the recipe my mother remembers. It is an Austrian peasant dish that is intended to be eaten as a meal, not dessert as Kaiserschmarrn is. Generally, it was eaten when times were hard and there was little money for meat and other, more expensive, ingredients.

Being a librarian, I took the research further still.

Apparently Sterz refers to a recipe specific to the Styrian region of Austria. It has been around for quite literally centuries. There are variations of it all over the country. Perhaps the Viennese version included the eggs, milk and sugar?

Also, I may have found a connection to Kaiserschmarrn. The chef who originally made the recipe based it upon an Austrian peasant dish that he learned from his mother and grandmother. Definitely getting closer...

So now I would like your input -- especially the input of Austrians who may remember variations of this dish from their childhood.

Anyone out there in the Blogosphere?


christina said...

Wow, how cool that you found all that out! (I guess you saw this Wikipedia entry for Sterz - very interesting) My dad is Austrian, but grew up in the Vorarlberg area - I'll have to ask him if he knows this dish - he was always telling us about all sorts of pancake-y type things he ate as a kid. I think there are probably hundreds of variations on the Kaiserschmarrn theme and people most likely used whatever they had handy to make it, Kaiserschmarrn being a "fancy" version.

Could the "baby finger" noodles possibly be small Schupfnudeln?

fxf said...

I'd bet my money on the Sterz explanation. The "Sterz" entry http://oewb.retti.info/oewb-public/show.cgi?lexnr=uUGJyEy5/aWp9nwefTxLK5NBmm4nctvxLylBMNMM0IjnuZMzKBy9Ng==&pgm_stat=show
shows that it is in use in Vienna for different kinds of Mehlspeisen, made with different ingredients. The receipe sounds like what we in Bavaria would call a Apfelpfannkuchen, a big pancake with apples in it, sometimes raisins. Remember: a Kaiserschmarrn is nothing else but a refined pancake.
There ist also Fingernudeln, similar to Schupfnudeln.

Pointless Drivel said...

Have you considered the possibility of a French connection?

Remember, that family left Austria for Alsace-Lorraine during the latter parts of the Unification of Germany. They were in that area for a number of years, until the war between Prussia and France, at which point that spur of the Rausch family emigrated to the US.

(Interesting aside, based on research I did in college: Parts of The Father's family came from Prussia. So, The Mother's family left Austria to escape The Father's family.]

Anyway, the style and ingredients of stats, to me, indicates a French influence, which could explain the lack of a direct connection to an Austrian dish.

Oh, and incidentally, I've really never liked stats. Too sweet and doughy.

Global Librarian said...

"Too sweet?" Those words do not make sense to me...

And remember, PT, Great-Grandma was 100% Austrian, born in Vienna. That is who taught Grandma Rausch to cook. The Alsace-connection came from Grandma's father and therefore doesn't come into it. Plus, the pancake-esque food is very Austrian in nature.

And thanks, Christina & FKF, I obviously have a bit more research to do...

Anonymous said...

Not like stats????? I have never heard of such a thing - are you sure you aren't the milkman's kid?
If for no other reason - stats are a comfort food - the only time I have made them myself is when I couldn't get down for Mom to make them for me, but I love it when she does. In fact - maybe I will have to make a point to make a trip down there just for the Stats :) Well and parental bonding time.

James Derry'l said...

I Love Stats! I made it for dinner tonight. My grandmother is hungarian & she always called the, Schmern Stats... She alway served it with Apple sauce & Cinnamon.. I never questioned what it was or what the name was... Actually, I never thought about it, until tonight people were like what are you cooking.. and I Couldnt really explain. LOL.