By Gisela Williams
May 24, 2014

Berlin resident Gisela Williams explores the proud new zeitgeist taking hold in her adopted homeland.

Like so many German words, Heimat is impossible to translate. Some describe it as a “homeland” or sense of belonging—your roots, so to speak. The French might liken it to terroir. But after the Nazis hijacked it, Heimat became a loaded term—all but erased from the German lexicon. Until a few years ago, I’d barely heard it uttered. Today, however, the concept is making a comeback, thanks to a cadre of artists, chefs, and thinkers who are trying to rescue Heimat from its nationalistic undertones and bring it up-to-date.

Few have been as high-profile as Pop provocateur Stefan Strumbel, one of a dozen artists showing in this month’s buzzy “Make Heimat” exhibition at the esteemed Draiflessen Collection, in Mettingen. In 2010, the Black Forest–based artist captured international attention for reinventing that most German cliché, the cuckoo clock; his are adorned with contemporary icons (grenades; Rolling Stones lips), painted in garish colors, and illuminated in neon lights. (Karl Lagerfeld is a fan.) “It’s time to create a modern Heimat feeling, to pimp it up with humor and a global perspective,” Strumbel told me. “We’re a new generation that can be proud of our country.”

Joining Strumbel is Edgar Reitz, an acclaimed filmmaker whose epic trilogy, Heimat,gained a fourth sequel, Home from Home (Die Andere Heimat), shown at last year’s Venice Film Festival. It follows a bookish village boy who moves from rural Hunsrück to booming Brazil, where he must define his Heimat anew.

Chefs, meanwhile, have been keen to reboot the country’s culinary scene, long defined by anything but homegrown flavors. “Less than ten years ago it was considered ‘unmodern’ to eat German food,” recalls Jan Schawe, the owner of Mutterland, a trio of light-filled cafés in Hamburg that sell local, artisanal products such as Hermann’s leberwurst and rye sourdough. Stephan Landwehr, co-owner of the Berlin institution Grill Royal ($$$$) and my favorite bistro, Pauly Saal ($$$$), echoes the sentiment. “For decades after World War II,” he says, “Germans adopted Italian and French cuisine as their own.” Not anymore.

Notably, Berlin chef Tim Raue—known for Asian-inspired cooking at his namesake hot spot in Prenzlauer Berg—is returning to native flavors at his new La Soupe Populaire ($$$), in a former brewery on the fashionable edges of Mitte. On the menu: Königsberger Klopse—veal meatballs in a silky caper sauce—and soft-boiled “mustard eggs” served atop mashed potatoes. “My grandmother’s dishes,” Raue notes proudly.

But Heimat cuisine doesn’t have to be homespun. I recently dined at Aqua ($$$$), a jewel box in the Ritz-Carlton, Wolfsburg, on the Volkswagen campus, where Frankfurt-born chef Sven Elverfeld is creating modern menus against a backdrop of historic smokestacks and starchitect-designed buildings. His dishes—Gröstel, a hash of blood sausage and foie gras; pike with Riesling-braised cabbage—mixed regional and international ingredients. Though engineered like a Porsche and plated on Plexiglas platforms, they tasted like nothing so much as childhood memories.