Part number 199 398 500 A in the Volkswagen component catalogue bears the distinction of being the company’s most popular product, sold in-fact more than any individual car produced by the Wolfsburg based firm. Neither a nut, a bot, or a catalytic converter (a-hem), part number 199 398 500 A is actually a sausage.
But no ordinary sausage.
Manufactured since 1973 and initially sold in the company canteen – before distribution expanded to supermarkets, stores, and football stadiums across Germany – this beechwood smoked pork cylinder is arguably the most celebrated culinary concoction of post-war German cuisine – the humble Currywurst.
Around 20,000 sausages are produced per day by an in-house team of butchers, to be paired alongside a Volkswagen trademark tomato sauce (part 199 398 500 B). As the company’s factory in Wolfsburg is the largest factory in the world, with over 60,000 employees, that’s enough to make a substantial dent in the 6.7 million Volkswagen-branded currywurst sausages produced annually.
Every year Germans eat an estimated 800 million Currywurst – that breaks down to almost ten per person, per year.
Only a fraction of those originating from the Wolfsburg factory.
Although not everyone is a fan: former US President George W Bush famously pushed his Currywurst around the plate before leaving it mostly un-eaten when dining with then German chancellor (and devoted advocate of the Wurst) Gerhard Schröder in 2002.
As popular as it is in Germany at least, the provenance of the Currywurst is largely based on legend – with a Berlin kiosk owner named Herta Heuwer credited with introducing this combination of chopped fried Bockwurst sausage and faintly tangy ketchup sauce, in September 1949.
The sausage lady from Königsberg
Heuwer was born in 1913, the year before the start of WWI, in the city of Königsberg – the birthplace of Immanuel Kant, and where the Elector of Brandenburg, Frederick III, would crown himself the first King in Prussia in 1701.
After moving to Berlin in the mid-1920s Herta Heuwer would complete an apprenticeship as a seamstress and from 1936 until 1940 work at the prestigious KaDeWe department store in Berlin’s affluent Charlottenburg district. Five years later, at the end of WWII, she remained in the city, helping to clear the ruins of this district as one of the much revered Trümmerfrau (rubble woman).
Her introduction to the business of sausage selling came in August 1949, when she opened a small Imbiss (snack stop) on the corner of Kantstraße and Kaiser-Friedrich-Straße in West Berlin.
Long since gone, although now recognised with an honorary plaque (the only one of more than 300 in the neighbourhood for anything food related), it is here where Heuwer is reported to have invented the Currywurst – the ‘steak for the common man’. According to local lore, sourcing curry powder, and possibly Worcestershire sauce, from British soldiers stationed in the city, to make an ersatz Ketchup – in response to post-war shortages. Masking the low quality of sausage meat at the time may have also played a role.
Proving perhaps, in this instance at least, that scarcity is indeed the mother of invention.
On September 4th 1949 – the date it is said Currywurst officially came into being – Herta Heuwer would start selling ‘Spezial Curry Bratwurst’ from her stall. By the middle of the 1950s, this would be simplified as the ‘Currywurst’. The sausage lady from Königsberg’s empire would soon grow to include a stand next to the Red Light District of Stuttgarter Platz at Kaiser-Friedrich-Straße 57, open day and night, and employing 19 servers.
On February 21st 1959, Herta Heuwer’s sauce was officially recognised, at least in some sense, by the German patent office (Patent number 721319) under the trademark name, Chillup. Although due to a quirk of German patent law, the actual sauce itself (the ingredients) were not recognised – which meant that Heuwer did not have to disclose the exact recipe for her mixture.
A secret she took to her grave in 1999. – despite being courted by numerous food companies, including Kraft, to acquire her unique formula.
In 2019, the Berlin State Mint celebrated the 70th anniversary of the invention of the Currywurst by producing a coin bearing Herta Heuwer’s face.
Even Google would produce a celebratory Doodle for her 100th birthday, featuring a plate of Currywurst.
But is it truly fair to say Heuwer was responsible for inventing this cult snack?
The Wurst of them all
While Herta Heuwer’s legacy lives on, her sausages stalls do not.
Instead in Berlin alone there are innumerous vendors across the city offering variations on the theme. As Heuwer’s original recipe is lost in time, the more than 60 million Currywurst eaten in Berlin each year provide a diverse experience for the palette. With even Halal sausages sold using beef instead of pork.
And of course, as times change, Currywurst also changes with the time, as there are plenty of establishments across Berlin – and Germany – that now also offer vegetarian and vegan versions of this street food classic.
While the future of this savoury sausage snack appears to be without doubt, there still remains some minor controversy regarding its exact origin.
If we are to assess the origin of the Currywurst, it would, of course, be useful to first define its original proportions:
Gratuitously slathered in a wave of tangy tomato sauce, the Currywurst sausage now typically comes in two variations – with and without skin. Which translates as with or without the intestine wrapping that many sausages are usually prepared in.
The original concept of Currywurst, however, was of a chopped, skinless sausage, served smothered in a fake tomato ketchup, eventually also dished out with french fries on the side.
Herta Heuwer’s claim to have been the first to have invented the Currywurst could be deemed problematic when considering that predating her possible creation, it was possible to similarly buy a Zigeunerwurst (a gypsy sauce sausage), although this combination was of a tomato paprika sauce – often now called Hungarian Sauce or Paprika Sauce (as gypsy is considered a derogatory term). The derivation of this dish is unclear (although the ‘Gypsy Sauce’ is said to date to 1903) and it is far from popular, to the point of being classified as obscure. Nor can we consider this a take on the classic American ketchup.
Which is exactly what Heuwer was offering: chopped cheap sausage; fake ketchup sauce.
The problems in Herta Heuwer’s story appear in the fine-print:
Heuwer would talk, when reminiscing about September 4th 1949 and serving her first Currywurst (then ‘Spezial Curry Bratwurst’) as remembering the rain falling on the city – although weather reports detail that this was a distinctly dry day. Perhaps then the day is wrong?
Additionally, another Berlin sausage seller that also started production in 1949 – named Maximillian – would state that the introduction of Heuwer’s sauce was far from the initial success it is popularly made out to be. Instead it was only with subsequent revisions in the 1950s that the dish gained its fans, and its notoriety.
The two owners of Maximilian, Max Brückner (who is often credited with introducing the skinless sausage to Berlin immediately after WWII) and Frank Friedrich, worked with Herta Heuwer to supply sausages to her stand. With Friedrich stating that it was his intervention that guided the unique taste of Heuwer’s sauce and led to its success.
Maximilian still exists and markets a sauce based on Heuwer’s long lost recipe – said to have been reborn following a collaboration between Heuwer’s niece and Frank Friedrich.
The company, however, openly pays homage to Heuwer as the originator of the original Currywurst concept (cheap chopped sausage and fake ketchup), while celebrating their role in the development of the sauce.
Beyond this, there are still some voices that claim that the title belongs to the city of Hamburg, in particular Uwe Timm – author of the novella The Development of the Currywurst – who has described eating a Currywurst in the Hanseatic city in 1947 – two years before Herta Heuwer’s stand started serving the snack. Although his claim remains unverified and attributed only to his recollection.
Comically a group of Hamburg residents even formed a tongue-in-cheek club following the release of a film version of Timm’s book to claim the city’s central role in the story of the introduction of the Currywurst. With a plaque introduced (now gone) on am Großneumarkt the city’s Neustadt.
Hamburg can even boast to have been home to the first sausage stand to be recognised in the prestigious Gault Millau food guide (although this establishment has since closed down…) – a distinction that has eluded the eateries in Berlin.
There is no question that the legend of the Currywurst belongs to the Cold War West, although ironically one of the Berlin’s most popular sausage stalls, famous for its Currywurst, is actually in the former East of the city – Konnopke’s Imbiss, under the U-bahn tracks at Eberswalder Station. The owner of the stall would claim to have been introduced to the Currywurst in the 1950s in West Berlin, before the construction of the Berlin Wall.
This iconic snack continues to be popular, although technically no longer the most successful fast food eat in the city – having long since lost that title to the Döner Kebab as Berlin’s cheap sustenance of choice.
Regardless of its provenance, the association of the Currywurst with Berlin and Herta Heuwer has ensured its legacy as a symbol of ingenuity in the face of hardship – the West German Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) of the 1950s – and a nation seeking to reestablish and redefine itself.
And it would appear, without any direct challengers (dismissing Uwe Timm’s solitary claim), that Heuwer can claim to have both invented – and popularised – the snack.
edit: In March 2020, an association based in Berlin called the ‘Interessengemeinschaft Berliner Traditionswurstwaren’ received official recognition from the German Patent and Trademark Office that Berlin currywurst or “real currywurst” (currywurst made from skinless sausages), can only be produced in Berlin.
Which means that Berlin Currywurst will now bear the blue seal of origin from the Patent and Trademark Office.
YES – the Currywurst was invented in Berlin (West) and also popularised in the city.
Herta Heuwer’s claim remains uncontested.