1967: The Cold War was still on. So was the Vietnam War. NATO was protecting Europe from possible Soviet incursion. Lots of planes were flying over Germany: US, British, Canadian, and German planes. Noisy planes. Starfighters: fighter jets that shattered the sound barrier with a loud crack. Sonic booms would startle you, rattle your crockery, cause your cake to fall in the oven, and make the dachshund hide under the bed. A lot of Germans didn't like all this noise.
One brave Münchner did something about it. His name was Helmut Winter, and he became the decorated hero of the Great Dumpling War: the one in which a commercial artist singlehandedly defeated the combined NATO air forces. Let us honour him by learning his story and boiling up some celebratory Knödel: the Helmut Winter weapon of choice.
An Idea is Born
Helmut Winter worked from his home office in Pasing, a section of Munich. Unfortunately, this part of town was directly under the flight path of supersonic jets – almost 100 of the ear-splitting things a day flew over the houses. They flew so low over the house in the Falkweg that the Winters could see the pilots' faces, or so Frau Winter claimed. One day, they'd had enough.
Herr Winter was just putting the finishing touches on a drawing when a particularly loud crack! made him jump – and ruined hours of work. Furious, Herr Winter decided to take action. He phoned the local newspaper and placed an advert:
Seeking antiaircraft gun with sufficient ammunition to restore quiet and good order to western Munich's airspace. Reply to 1/3469 Z1.
Winter later claimed he wasn't completely serious – he was just angry. But so, apparently, were a lot of others, and some of them were packing serious heat. In the next few weeks, Winter received offers of:
- A complete Vierlings-Flak with 5000 rounds of ammunition. Yes, that's the huge four-barreled antiaircraft gun you see in old movies from the Second World War.
- A 15-cm flak gun from the Isar section of town, with the request that Herr Winter also cleanse the eastern sector of Munich's skies from 'Amis'2.
- A surface-to-air missile. In private hands.
Soon, there were mysterious men in trenchcoats hanging around the Winters' front door. They probably wanted to know exactly how much ordnance the people of Munich had stashed away from the last war. When Spiegel, a national magazine, ran the advert in their oddities column, the mailbox got fuller, and Helmut Winter got worried. A veteran of the Russia campaign, he had unpleasant memories and no intention of opening a new front. He looked for an honourable way out of the situation. He decided to attack NATO in a less 20th-century way.
He needed a cabinetmaker and a good cook.
'Die Munition ist fertig!'
What Helmut Winter gave the cabinetmaker was the design for a catapult: an ancient siege weapon capable of hurling stones at a target – a knight in armour, say, or a castle wall…or a Starfighter. Instead of stones, Winter decided to use…
Potato dumplings, a staple food in Bavaria. The Bavarian word is Knödel3. So this became the Knödelkrieg, and Helmut Winter became the Knödelschütz, famed in newspaper, newsreel and song (yes, there was a record). Although Winter, of course, was the front warrior in this action, hurling his Knödel an astounding 60 meters in the direction of passing NATO planes (and allegedly actually hitting one low-flying helicopter), mention must be made of the home front. Elisabeth Winter made up the R&D department as well as the entire production staff, manufacturing perfect Knödel4 that wouldn't fall apart in flight. Upon determining that the next batch had been perfectly boiled, Frau Winter announced from the stove, 'Die Munition ist fertig!' – 'The ammunition is ready!'
Everybody had a good time. Newspapers as far away as the St Louis Post-Dispatch reported on the good-humoured 'war' with the air forces. People in Europe were probably taken aback by the chutzpah of it all. North Americans were more likely to be astounded at a German with such a lively sense of humour. Germans appreciated someone who took on 'the system' and won.
"But what good came of it at last?"
Quoth little Peterkin.
Robert Southey, The Battle of Blenheim
NATO surrendered: the flight path was altered. People in Munich got more sleep.
Helmut Winter was a hero to all the right people – to wit, people with a sense of humour. He became the first recipient of the Karl-Valentin-Preis for using humour to solve a public policy problem. Karl Valentin was a famous Munich comic.
Helmut Winter died in 2013. In 2015, his widow Elizabeth bestowed the first prizes given in her husband's memory, the Knödelorden, or Order of the Knödel, to a mural artist, some schoolchildren who had built their own catapult5, and the Pasinger Archiv, which preserves the history of this Munich district.
Let's Make Some Ammunition!
Do you own a large catapult? Would you like to make some potato-y ammunition to go into it? Alternatively, are you planning a dinner with Sauerbraten and red cabbage and need a tasty carb? Then you need to know how to make Kartoffelknödel. At the risk of angering Bavarian cooks, we will venture a recipe. Individual methods may vary.
- 6-8 medium potatoes
- Salt (How much? How salty do you like your potatoes?)
- 80g cornstarch
- 2 eggs
- Some parsley
- A cooking pot
- A mixing bowl
- A potato peeler
- A slotted spoon
- A potato ricer, called a Kartoffelpresse in German.
This will take about an hour and a half, so make sure you aren't doing anything too absorbing, other than watching the planes fly over.
- Boil the potatoes for 25 minutes.
- Peel the potatoes. You may need a peeler, but if you use German potatoes, you can probably just pull the skin off.
- Rice the potatoes into the mixing bowl.
- Add eggs, salt, and cornstarch.
- Get up-close and personal with the mixture. Knead it in your hands (wet fingers, to keep it from sticking) until it resembles dough. At this point, we will separate the laid-back cook from the uptight one. Laid-back cooks will roll the Knödel into loose balls, more or less the same size. These cooks are probably not from Bavaria. Bavarian cooks will make the balls perfectly round, using deft hand motions. Perfectionists will weigh each ball on a kitchen scale to ensure that each ball is the same size as each other ball. This, of course, will mean that the Munition is perfectly calibrated for the catapult.
- Simmer the Knödel, covered, for another 20-25 minutes. If you were planning to do something else today, forget it. You can go and cook some red cabbage while you're waiting.
- Sprinkle with parsley and serve with a flourish. Or hurl them at the nearest enemy airplane or drone.
Knödel can get very fancy, as Austrian variants attest. They can also be made of the same ingredients as go in Southern US turkey stuffing and covered with gravy for a down-home taste treat. There's a South in every country, remember.
If you can put up with Bavarian dialect, here's a wonderful interview with the Winters. It includes a bit of that pop song.
This video on Knödel-making has handy English subtitles, but is not uncontroversial. See the comment section for arguments about when to add salt, etc, and make your own culinary choices. Which might include not making Kartoffelknödel in the first place.