I’ve been to a German Aldi store. It’s not your typical tourist destination but I felt inexplicably drawn to the red-haired Trader Joe’s cousin in another country. It’s like the motherland for low-priced food and carts that keep quarters captive in their mouth until you share with the next shopper. Some of the food in a German Aldi is the same as in the States — potato chips, milk, cheese, eggs, bread — albeit with German subtitles. Stores in America and Germany are both laid out in the same soldier-straight rows with a barebones approach, overworked cashiers, and mostly store-brand products. I brought German Aldi chocolate back in my suitcase when everyone else brought back cognac and wine.
I recently went to my local stateside Aldi to get my list of grocery staples. The Aldi stores in the United States do have occasional rogue German foods scattered through the stores. Packages of bratwurst by the hot dogs. German mustard next to the generic dayglo version. However, on this visit, the store was quieter than usual. No elevator music. Only a few scattered shoppers without squeaky carts. No screaming toddlers. I heard faint music playing. The song was oddly familiar as it echoed through the aisles. Maybe a polka. Maybe a Sound of Music anthem. I found myself being drawn through the store like I was on Guy’s German Grocery Games searching for sauerkraut (aisle 2). I imagined the ghostly steps of lederhosen-clad cashiers and big bosomed German sample ladies as I was in that mountaintop German Aldi. Was I going to enter some kind of grocery store trapdoor or was this just a Small World limited time exhibit in a suburban grocery store?
I got my answer when my invisible, magic German guide led me to the frozen food case. I was face to face with the motherland, hinterland. Envisioned by what must have been a very drunk Aldi marketing department. While one simple German offering would have been enough, Aldi went overboard by providing an entire meal in the freezer case. In case I didn’t know these were German foods (rather than Tennessee offerings), each package was emblazoned with a banner stating the foods were “Imported from Germany” with a German flag in a circle waving at me like it was a royal Aldi trademark.
A rather sad Pork Schnitzel started the international meal offerings. Described as an “uncooked pork loin” with a “delicious saltine cracker breading,” the schnitzel seemed like an afterthought in the line-up. It promised to taste like German shoe leather with a dry crust that would keep me from whistling doe-a-deer-a-female-deer. Even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to whistle in German, I threw some schnitzel in my cart because honestly, when could I ever say I had thrown a schnitzel?
Aldi must have also known a dry schnitzel wouldn’t cut it (romantically or for dinner). The next frozen option tried really hard to be equally German-ly traditional and yet not quite: garlic sage, mushroom, or cheese spaetzle. I was beginning to think there was a German grandmother held hostage in the back of the Aldi making odd spaetzle for an American market. All the while a group of marketing execs was writing all the German words they knew up on a whiteboard. Except they thought the following terms were German: sage and butter sauce, mozzarella cheese, and a mix of mushrooms and sheathed wood tufts (which just sounds dirty, not German). The final straw in the German-ish side department was the “Artichoke & Cheese” and “Spinach & Ricotta Strudel” labeled as delicious puff pastries. It was like Greece, Italy, and Germany had a threesome and then a food baby was born in the Aldi aisles.
In this international freezer case, Aldi saved the best for last. Dessert, German style: Bienenstich Almond Cake, Deutsche Kuche (with a very German umlaut), and Caramel Apple Strudel. The marketing team was really shooting for broke with these dessert descriptions and images. While all the packaging was flying a German flag of authenticity and a tiny German castle in the upper left-hand corner, the desserts obviously had food stylists in the German packing plant/photography staging area. A glass jar of honey with rustic raffia, burlap, and almonds in and out of their shells and a smear of some kind of white cream decorated the box. No German beer. Just a notation to let shoppers know the desserts were “enlarged to show texture.”
“A delicious traditional German golden cake filled with vanilla flavored cream, topped with caramelized flaked almonds”
I couldn’t resist any of these hybrid, frozen German offerings. I still wanted to check the back room to see if there was a German grandma there or maybe just the marketing team playing German copy bingo. By the time I checked out and got my German food-in-a-box home, it was dinner time. I turned my kitchen into a dry schnitzel, fake spaetzle, and almost-German almond cake wonderland. As Aldi took over my dining table, I could swear I heard small children singing “It’s a Small World.” I couldn’t quite convince my husband to wear his lederhosen (at least not for dinner). The kids did do a fair rendition of “Auf Wiedersehen, Goodnight” before asking for hamburgers and fries because they were still starving after two bites of Germany, compliments of Aldi.