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Eating with Brahms

August 30, 2009


“… on his way back from Rote Igel or Kochschule he would stop at the Casino in the Stadtpark for relaxation. There I found him, with Dr. Münz, seated at a little marble table on the high terrace, sipping his coffee seasoned with a glass of cognac and eagerly reading the daily papers fixed on a stick, Viennese fashion.” ~ Sigismond Stojowski [1]

Johannes Brahms’ contemporaries often mentioned his love of food and drink in their remembrances of him. Indeed, we know quite a lot about his eating preferences, favorite restaurants, and drinking habits… and let’s just say that the evidence is almost exactly the opposite of what one might expect of a famous Herr Doktor who rubbed shoulders with the élite of Viennese society.

“I live in Vienna as if I were in the country,” Brahms once told a friend, and this is borne out in what we know of the Brahmsian cuisine.[2]  He ate his midday meal at the same restaurant every day: Zum Roten Igel (The Red Hedgehog). Today the Hotel Amadeus occupies the site of this famous tavern at Wildpretmarkt 5, a two minute walk from St. Stephen’s Cathedral; in its heyday the Igel hosted musical performances and was also favoured by Franz Schubert. But what were Brahms’ meals there like?


Robert Kahn recalls that Brahms never ate alone at the Rote Igel; he always had “two or three acquaintances” with him, and the meal could be accompanied by jokes and prickly insults of all sorts.[3]  Brahms was evidently fond of a “highly-seasoned meat course” there (goulash beef, perhaps?).[4]  The staff at the Rote Igel “kept in the cellar a small barrel of the finest Hungarian Tokay for his private consumption.”[5] He was also known to have a special weakness for Rindspilaw (beef-pilaf), a simple peasant dish.[6]

His proletarian taste also revealed itself in the homes of those who hosted him. The Kalbeck family noted Brahms’ fondness for Silsalat (an Austrian herring salad)[7], while a Dutch professor recalled her surprise at his “loud demands” for whitebait—a favorite fried food of the dockworkers.[8]  There was even a rumor that, when opening a can of sardines, Brahms would drink the oil directly out of the can. Moral of the story: You can take the boy out of the Hamburg slums, but you can’t take memories of favorite childhood foods out of the man.


“There at the head of the table sits the ‘Uncle’ with the long, white-flowing beard. The laughter with which he signs receipts for jokes, roars its way out to us. Yes, Uncle Brahms can drink and eat!” ~ Flore Kalbeck, daughter of the music critic Max Kalbeck, on her memories of Brahms visiting their family home for supper [9]

Be on the lookout for two Brahmsian recipes posted here in the near future: a hearty Beef-Pilaf and Austrian Herring Salad. Stay tuned for more…

MUSIC: Nordic Babe’s favorite Brahms movement, bar none—Mvmt. III of the Third Symphony (described as “Sheer Sensuality” by one critic. Ahem.) Listen here.


[1] Sigismond Stojowski, “Recollections of Brahms,” The Musical Quarterly 19 #2 (April 1933): 150.

[2] Robert Haven Schauffler, “Brahms, Poet and Peasant,” The Musical Quarterly 18 #4 (October 1932): 556.

[3] Burkhard Laugwitz & Reinhard G. Pauly, “Robert Kahn and Brahms,” The Musical Quarterly 74 #4 (1990): 603.

[4] Schauffler, 556.

[5] Karl Geiringer, Brahms, his life and work, 3d ed. (New York: Da Capo Press, 1982), pg. 165.

[6] Schauffler, 556.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 29, 2010 1:55 am

    If I had a dollar for each time I came here! Great article!

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