Every year on the second Friday of February in the upper banqueting hall in Bremen's town hall, the Schaffermahlzeit1 takes place. It has been a traditional fraternity dinner for ships' captains, ship owners, and merchants since 1544.
Originally, this meal's purpose was to gather donations for the Haus Seefahrt, an organisation that supports retired sailors and their families. It also served as a farewell dinner for the seamen that were sailing in springtime, as well as an opportunity to discuss all topics concerning navigation, politics, trade, and industry2. Over the years the Schaffermahl developed into a social event where ship's captains, merchants, and their guests and out-of-town business partners were invited. However, it does serve as the focal point for a charity that supports retired seamen and their families3. It is indeed a very traditional event and very few changes have ever taken place.
The Schaffermahl has about 300 participants; there are 100 commercial members, 100 nautical members, and about 100 out-of-town guests are invited annually. To be invited to the Schaffermahl, one has to be considered a man of merit, having done a great service to either Bremen, Germany, or international trade. Every non-local guest, however, can only participate once in his lifetime. Each year, one guest of honour is invited - usually a public figure who is supposed to make a speech on Germany and Bremen. Guests of Honour have included the German Federal President (in fact every Federal President since the German Federal Republich was founded), the German Chancellor, the German Foreign Minister, Minister Presidents of neighbouring Federal states in Germany, as well as a couple of foreign politicians.
There is one exception to the 'once in a lifetime' rule: Bremen's Mayor, in his function as a host for the meal, is invited every year, even though he is just a guest and not a member of the Haus Seefahrt. Apart from that, only one guest has participated twice, namely the first German President Theodor Heuss. He was accidentally invited by Bremen's Mayor Kaisen, who didn't recall that Heuss had already been Guest of Honour. Both Heuss and Kaisen would be embarrassed if Heuss's invitation were withdrawn, so this was solved diplomatically not by inviting Theodor Heuss personally, but inviting the second German President, as it was Heuss's second term in office.
The meal is organised by three elected 'Schaffer', who not only have to organise the event, but also have to pay for the meal all by themselves. So, while it is considered a great honour to be elected as a Schaffer, the Gentlemen being elected usually have to provide the financial background to fulfill this job. Another duty is that the Schaffer and their wives have to taste the dishes at exactly 13.00 on the day of the meal; this is called the Schmeckemahlzeit.
The Order of Courses
Being a traditional meal, it is not surprising that the courses are also highly regulated. The whole meal is derived from a simple sailor's diet. The same Head Chef has been responsible for preparing the meal for over 30 years, and one of the only things he has ever changed is the sort of potato, reportedly because of quality issues.
Courses in Order
Seefahrerbier ('sea-fare beer'), a dark beer brewed especially for this occasion by the local brewery Beck & Co.
Dried cod with mustard sauce and potatoes.
The main course (meat course) is brown cabbage with a local speciality 'Pinkel', salted and smoked pork, sweet chestnut and fried potatoes4.
Roast veal with celery salad, prunes and steamed apples.
Riga flounder, anchovies, German sausage, ox's tongue, a collection of cheese and some fruits, just in case someone's still hungry.
After the meal, coffee is served and clay pipes are smoked; these are manufactured especially for this event. Every hundred years there is a second fish course served after the dried cod; the last time this happened was 1996.
All participants are supposed to either wear a tailcoat or, if they are actually a commissioned officer on a ship, to attend in uniform.
If you are ever invited to the Schaffermahlzeit as a guest, rent or buy a tailcoat rather early, as they are always sold out in Bremen by mid-January.
Wearing decorations is not technically forbidden, but is frowned upon. This stems from the hanseatic custom not to accept any decoration whatsoever. A Bremen resident doesn't show off, understatement is everything.
While the Schaffermahl is a very festive event, it is deliberately different from eating out in a fancy restaurant. Every guest only gets one set of cutlery, one is supposed to wipe it clean with a piece of paper laid out and to use it again for every course. Moreover, salt and pepper are put on the table (in small silver and gold paper bags, reminding people that salt and pepper were very expensive in the past) and it is no faux pas to actually use them.
The whole meal lasts about five hours; during its course 12 speeches are to be held by the three Schaffer and the Guest of Honour. While this doesn't sound too bad at first, one has to consider that the seats are reportedly very uncomfortable and narrow, and more important, the guests are only allowed to go to the facilities in a prescribed smoke-and-pee-break towards the end of the meal.
While women are not allowed to the meal itself, some of the participant's wives are supposed to accompany their spouses to the event. While the men are at the meal, the women are to chit-chat and to have some coffee in a room nearby, while showing off their latest evening dress.
No Women Allowed?
A rather common opinion regarding female participants is that only men are permitted, and that this has proved its worth for more than 400 years, so why change it?
However, this tradition may be discontinued in the not so far future. What if, for instance, a woman gets elected for Federal President? Every German President so far has been Guest of Honour, and even though there's no obligation to it, it could be regarded as a faux-pas not to invite a President because of her gender. An even more 'threatening' scenario would be that in Bremen, a woman gets elected for Mayor - it is virtually impossible not to invite Bremen's Mayor to the meal.
Then there's a fact that requires a most pragmatic view on this issue: the Haus Seefahrt has a regular female member, who is indeed a commissioned Captain on a ship. As matters stand, it is her turn to be a nautical schaffer in 2015.