Ati Gropius Johansen grew up in the house pictured here, the Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts. In
February 1999, Peter Gittleman interviewed her about food and cooking
when she was growing up.
Peter: What were your mother’s recipe books like?
Ati: You can look at those. There are a lot of them in English. They were somewhat elaborate because that recipe book came when she had a cook. Recipes were written out for the cook to do.
Peter: So the cook followed your mother’s recipes?
Ati: My mother would pick out the dishes to be prepared. That’s what traditionally the lady of the house does in a good European family. The lady of the house makes the menu. She decides what is to be eaten every day of the week, what the groceries are, and what the dishes are, and how they are to be prepared and those instructions are given to the cook after breakfast. Actually Isi did her own shopping but from there on in it was the cook. Of course I was always great friends with the cook. She had a lovely time making fun of my mother’s recipes. She wanted to do her own thing yet she had to follow all these instructions. There was a lot of joshing going around. But anyway you’ll see the recipes, I don’t mean to imply that they weren’t delicious but the really good ones were more for party occasions.
Peter: So what was typical Thursday night dinner for the Gropius family?
Ati: Well things like filet of sole with lemon and a little butter. Fresh peas, and some boiled potatoes and a fresh salad comes to mind. After which I’d get up as hungry as when I sat down! Or, we’d have chicken. There was always lots of chicken. Chicken fricassee, chicken with rice - I detest, brown rice - with a little bit of vegetable on the side was common. It was nothing, really. I like my chicken drowned in cacciatore sauce or paprika or something. I wanted heft and everything was very light. I suppose there’s a name for that.
Peter: Nouvelle cuisine.
Ati: That’s it. That’s it. And the quantity, too. Very healthy. On the other hand, I’m also healthy and I eat the world’s worst food.
Peter: So there wasn’t any sauerbraten or the typical heavy German sauce and meats.
Ati: No, not at all. No German cooking of that kind. Nothing. That’s why I was always so sad. Because they were rebelling against all that.
Peter: So where did they learn their menus?
Ati: That was already, I’m sure, back in the Bauhaus and earlier. Imagine if you were living in Naples and all around you was heaps and heaps of spaghettis and garlic. But what you really wanted was a nice little piece of fish cooked naturally. You were forced to go against all of that tradition. That transition in Germany, I think, was seen early on in the more upscale homes. To this day, when I go to Germany and try desperately to get a German meal, I can’t find it. Not in Munich or Berlin. There are no restaurants that will serve German food. That’s simply not done. I get it when I go out to the country and I go to some little country inn. There, I can get my type of food; sauerkraut, potatoes and wurst. No way in a restaurant. My aunt, always with great pride, takes me off to the nearest Japanese restaurant or a Hong Kong restaurant, or a French restaurant. Every type of cooking in the world, except never German cooking. So there’s that. If anything, my parents would believe in French cooking, but since my father had a deadly loathing of both garlic and onions, they really didn’t like that much either. That killed my mother, too. Because what can you cook if you never have onions and garlic to flavor it with?
Peter: No onions? No garlic? Not even a shred?
Ati: Not a shred.
Peter: That is really limiting.
Ati: That is really limiting. So everything ends up tasting… sort of tasteless. That was one of the reasons why I hated it so. But that wasn’t my mother’s fault. That was Walter, it was his snobbism. It was the smell of onions cooking that he couldn’t stand. The smell of food cooking was in itself unthinkable. You might well have opened up the sewers of Paris than have the smell of food in the house which was the reason there was the pantry with the two doors and all of that. And the fan always going over the kitchen stove. “For God’s sake turn the fan on!” Because that smell of something cooking, even if it was green beans cooking, might get into the living room and my father had a nose like a truffle pig. If there was an onion cooking that would have been it. And all his friends knew about that. “You can’t cook any onions. My father’s coming for supper.”
Peter: That is really surprising.
Ati: But you have to see all these things in his background, the houses in his past that he was reacting against. I suppose when he was little he spent time in apartments in Berlin. When I say apartments, I mean those twelve room apartments.
Peter: Three thousand square feet.
Ati: Yes, three thousand square feet. With the heavy drapes, and I don’t suppose the rooms were ever ventilated. And all this stuff in them. And the cooking going on … Anyway it was not to be had, ever. No smell of food. And I happen to love the smell of food, to me it’s one of the delights to smell something cooking but for my parents it was unthinkable.
Peter: So part of the whole experience of coming to the house as a guest for dinner was never to smell anything.
Ati: Never. No. Heavens. You have to think of it a little like a Japanese tea ceremony. You did it but it wasn’t that it was so terribly delicious. It was more a ceremony of sitting together and talking. It was a matter of the spirit. But I think it’s true the New England tradition, even the English, was a little closer is to that particular part of the new German tradition, where the food was minimal. The English didn’t think that much about food either.
Peter: So at your mother’s table did one compliment the cooking?
Ati: Yes, in a moderate way. It was nothing to be talked at length about. A guest would say, “What a lovely meal, Isi. Thank you so much.” And then you’d go on.
Peter: But you wouldn’t be asking for recipes and discussing what’s in every dish.
Ati: No, no, no. Actually I inherited a lot of that snobbism. I always thought that people who spent time thinking about food must have something wrong with them.
What memories do you have about your kitchen at home?