Thiemo Breyer

Kitchen Talk

«Then let him go out into the meadow and eat grass.» HIAS chef Leoni is having one of her «kitchen talks» with Thiemo Breyer

Leoni: Hi Thiemo, nice to have you here today. Why don’t you tell us where you’re from and how long you’ve been in Hamburg?

Thiemo Breyer: Hi Leoni, thanks for inviting me to the Kitchen Talk. I’ve been at HIAS since February 2023, so I arrived during Hamburg’s “best weather period”. People from Cologne (I live and work in Cologne) would say: “usselig”. In Hamburg, it doesn’t just rain from above, it rains from all sides.

What exactly is your area of expertise and what did you do during your five months at HIAS?

I’m a philosopher, but I also deal with other subjects, including ethnology. My tandem partner, Michael Schnegg, is an anthropologist.

In our joint project, we try to explore the interface between philosophy and ethnology. For example, we have been working on empathy: understanding the other person’s psyche. How do we come to understand the emotions or the general subjective states of other people? What are the different ways of relating empathically to others? Philosophy offers very sophisticated explanatory models, especially phenomenological philosophy, for which I also stand a little, and which has a certain tradition at the University of Cologne, with the Husserl Archive, which I serve for as director.

We have tried to apply these philosophical concepts of empathy to an ethnographic context in which Michael Schnegg has been working for many years: Namibia. It was interesting to see that the local people are empathetic not only to other people, but also to all kinds of phenomena in their natural environment, such as winds. They attribute a lot of emotional states to the winds, thinking about whether a particular wind is in a bad or friendly mood, whether it brings rain or not. There are also empathic references to wild animals, such as elephants, lions, etc. It is interesting to see how such a concept, established in philosophy, can be de-centered a bit. Through the contribution of ethnology, we can see that empathy does not have to be thought strictly in terms of another human subject, but can also include references to all kinds of other beings.

How exciting. Maybe a quote that I came across recently will fit in with this: “What we cook is an expression of who we are and where we come from.” Food is closely linked to people’s cultural identity, or the way they define themselves and distinguish themselves from other groups. This cultural identity refers to certain traditions of preparing and eating food. So, you define yourself by the food you are culturally associated with.

I know you’re vegetarian – have you been since childhood or is this a more recent development? And why don’t you eat meat, if I may ask?

Of course. Actually, I’ve always been a vegetarian, out of habit and because my mother is also a vegetarian and simply raised me as a vegetarian.

Then let him go out into the meadow and eat grass.

I come from the Black Forest, from a small town, and am a child of the 80s. At that time, the term “vegetarian” was not yet established. It was also quite difficult to avoid meat. I remember an episode at a children’s birthday party: I didn’t want to eat the sausages that were offered, and my classmate’s father said: “Then let him go to the meadow and eat grass.“ There were certain associations with “he doesn’t want to eat meat”: either he will wither because he lacks vital substances, or he will become effeminate because meat is associated with masculinity.

Did you ever ask your mother: “Why does everybody eat meat but I don’t”?

Yes, of course. When she was a child, she experienced a horror story involving a butcher. He stood in front of her, dripping blood, because he had probably just stirred a bucket of blood. It shocked her so much that from that moment on she said, “I will never eat meat again.” Categorically. That’s how it happened.

Is there a dish from your childhood that you associate with home?

Definitely, one hundred percent: Spätzle with lentils. With fried potatoes and black onions.

A strange combination.

That was one of my grandmother’s specialties. This trifecta is of course full of carbohydrates and protein. Instead of meat, there were really mushy lentils, more like porridge.

It’s almost a Proustian madeleine experience: certain foods, especially smells, are strongly associated with past experiences, so that real flashbulb memories of childhood or earlier phases of life are awakened.


And maybe one more comment on food and cultural identity: I would say that eating and cooking is not only a life-sustaining measure, but also a way of thematizing life: Through the way you cook, you thematize your own relationship to nature, the environment, animals, other people, vegetables – whatever. It is also a way of distinguishing yourself from others.

Do you have a special culinary memory of Hamburg to take home with you?

Yes, of course. I have a “foody friend” here in Hamburg and I explored Hamburg’s gastronomy with him. For example, we went to a very good wine bar where we tasted Pfälzer Rieslings and always had interesting courses – that was a culinary highlight for me.

Have you had any memorable dining experiences outside of Hamburg?

In Kyoto – I was a guest professor there once – there are an incredible number of temples, 2,000 to 3,000 in the city alone, basically on every street corner. Some of these temples offer Buddhist food, which is very simple, very tasty and completely vegetarian. One day, I went to a temple by myself, and without really being able to speak, I was served super tasty Buddhist monk food. It was a great experience.

If you had a fantasy dinner date, who would you want to be your date?

Fantasy dinner date? I have a similar question that I always ask my fellow philosophers: What kind of experience would you like to have with a philosopher, dead or alive? For example, a pub crawl through Cologne with Max Scheler in the 20s? That would be my favorite. Or a walk in the forest with Nietzsche. Or an afternoon with Kant. But for my own dinner date? Well, if you could invite two people, I would invite a top chef, because you need a good culinary accompaniment, like Tim Mälzer, and then Olli Schulz as a conversation partner.

One could cook and the other could talk to me.

I think that’s great. Thank you very much.

Thiemo Breyer

is Professor of Phenomenology and Anthropology at the Department of Philosophy at University of Cologne and director of the Husserl Archive there. As a philosopher with training and continuing interests in anthropology and cognitive science, Thiemo Breyer is concerned with questions of consciousness, corporeality, emotions, and intersubjectivity from an interdisciplinary perspective. His research aims to describe and conceptualize how people – given specific socio-cultural contexts, mental schemata, and bodily habits – understand themselves, the world, and others, and how they articulate this understanding.

Michael Schnegg

is Head of the Institute of Social & Cultural Anthropology, Department of Cultural History and Cultural Studies at Universität Hamburg. His “work engages anthropology with a range of disciplines to better understand how people collectively enact and make sense of the world. Fors so doing, he combines long-term ethnographic fieldwork in Mexico and Namibia with conceptual philosophical work and mathematical modelling.”

Leoni Schmitz

Leoni Schmitz—a studied designer is known throughout Europe as a «multitool» with experience in journalism, PR, graphics, community management and street music. For almost 20 years, she has been cooking in other people’s kitchens for—and often with—people who are strangers at first, but who have become friends by the end of the day!

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