Hawaii Toast: What Is It and How Do I Kill It?
There are many foods around the world that cause utter bemusement to natives and visitors alike; Iceland has Hákarl, Thailand has Jing Leed and the French have Escargot. Britain or more accurately , Scotland, have Haggis which for those who don’t know is the heart, lungs and liver of a sheep, boiled in its own stomach. I have been convinced for a long time that Haggis was an attempt to put off multiple English invasions by convincing the southern interlopers that the Scottish must be either crazy or hard as diamond tipped nails, if they chose Haggis as their national dish. The fact that Haggis is amazing was just a happy accident.
England has a fairly ordinary selection of national foods, given comparisons with other countries, but have disguised this fact by giving basic dishes totally incomprehensible names. I recently spent an enjoyable few hours on flight home with an American colleague, explaining that Yorkshire Puddings are not a dessert, Toad in the Hole contains absolutely no amphibia and that Spotted Dick is unlikely to lead to visiting an STD clinic.
Germany, like Britain, has many ordinary dishes. The potatoes taste like potatoes and the Schnitzel is no more worrying than any other breadcrumb encrusted meat. Sure, there are certain oddities, such as the Mettigel, a hedgehog fashioned out of raw meat with onion spikes, but given current tastes, eating raw meat is hardly bizarre. Germany certainly has weirder options. Personally, I reserve my culinary bemusement for any German or non-German who willingly opts to order Toast Hawaii in a restaurant.
Toast Hawaii or Hawaii Toast, depending on your linguistic choices, is a simple dish that is guaranteed to confuse any observer. In its most basic form, it is a humble piece of white bread, topped with ham, cheese, a slice of pineapple and for some reason, a cherry. I have seen various versions served over the years, with gourmet types adding extra flourishes or others using half a baguette topped with several pieces of ham, cheese and pineapple. The purest form, however, can be found in the musical ode to Hawaii Toast, Alexander Marcus’s Hawaii Toast Song:
The song title itself is surely a homage to the utter banality of Hawaii Toast, it is both weird and unremittingly boring at the same time. For many Germans, it is a byword for pedestrian thinking, the thought being that anyone who likes it probably regards vanilla as their favourite flavour, grey as their favourite colour and Bayern München their favourite football team.
My own opinion on this pineapply concoction is hard to pin down; I wouldn’t order it in a restaurant, I would certainly make it daily if I was a student or lived on my own, and despite only having “discovered” it less than a decade ago, I feel like I have known it my whole life. When I look at Hawaii Toast, I am suddenly transported back to a childhood spent with my grandparents. Both were born post World War I and both lived through the privation of the Wall Street crash, the rationing of World War II and the continued rationing of the post-war years. Those experiences impacted my grandparents’ diets in drastic degrees. Condensed milk was the nectar of the gods, bananas were an exciting treat and I still feel a pang of regret whenever I think of the face my grandmother had when I openly refused to eat liver and onions, a dish I imagine she would have walked over broken glass to eat in her youth.
It should come as no surprise then that the origins of Hawaii Toast are firmly rooted in the German post war period. The credit for its creation is often given to Germany’s first TV chef, Clemens Wilmenrod, a former actor with few if any cooking skills. It is often noted, with some derision, that Wilmenrod couldn’t even carve a chicken and that when presenting his show, close ups on his face would be used to switch out his pans to make it look like he was cooking up a storm. He was famous for using basic ingredients, canned vegetables or ready-made sauces and most scandalously, ketchup. Logically, an actor with no basic cooking skills would be the prime candidate to invent such a simple dish as Hawaii Toast.
Yet, it seems that there is some controversy over whether Wilmenrod can actually take all the plaudits. It appears that another chef, Hans Karl Adam, was hired by Wilmenrod as a cooking tutor and it is claimed that Adam was in fact the original mastermind behind Hawaii Toast. As the story goes, Wilmenrod bought several recipes from Adam, one of which could have been Wilmenrod’s most famous creation. If anything, Wilmenrod can only take credit for the elaborate name, something he was fond of doing with his ordinary dishes.
Personally, I would question whether either really invented the dish. I suspect that it came from a similar period of hardship that my grandparent experienced, when Germany was in ruins following the end of World War II. Although the allies didn’t start distributing food to the German populace until 1947, it is not hard to believe that canned pineapple, ham, white bread and cheese could not have been procured by imaginative Germans either legally or via the black market. If anything, it would be another adaptation such as the Currywurst, which came about thanks to British soldiers either selling or giving curry powder to Herta Heuwer a Berlin food vendor. Of course, Heuwer’s story is also disputed, with many food historians questioning whether one person could take credit for Currywurst, which only solidifies my suspicions.
Whether Wilmenrod did or didn’t invent Hawaii Toast is academic. It is unlikely that we will ever have an answer. We might scoff at the lack of sophistication that goes into making Wilmenrod’s creation, but we might perhaps reserve our scorn for other dishes. Hawaii Toast is not very exciting, but it speaks to a part of German history that is often overlooked but filled with ideas and creations that are still around today. Frankly, you don’t have to like Hawaii Toast, but perhaps it’s due the same amount of respect we reserve for the simpler, but seemingly exotic cousin, the Currywurst.