Ursula Heinzelmann, an accomplished writer, gastronome, and public figure, is the embodiment of the ways that personal journeys play into collective ones. Yet, despite the very natural progression of her own life experience and intellectual contributions surrounding food, she emphasizes that very little about the way things unfolded was planned. She reflects on how each twist and turn that her life has taken only prepared her for the next phase of her work, a theme that she has then carried over into her writing on food culture and history in Germany.
Once she finished high school in Berlin where she was born and raised, she pursued coursework in food technology, which quickly exposed her to the possibility of training as a chef. She gradually took to the work, blossoming from a shy and innocent youngster into someone who was able to take charge and remain self-assured, even in the high pressure, male-dominated environment of the kitchen. “It opened up a whole new world for me and also taught me how to stand on my own.”
“I’ve learned to concentrate on what’s happening now. Take a decision that makes sense for you now and feels good. You can only build up one layer after another. Then you’ll have a bit of confidence in yourself because you’ve made it through all these layers.”
After working as a chef, she applied the culmination of what she learned by opening up a full blown hotel and restaurant with her then husband on Lake Constance. As this location is at the heart of a flourishing wine region, she was gripped by the desire to learn more, which eventually inspired her to spend a year at sommelier school in Heidelberg.
From there, she began working at a wine store in Berlin, which piqued her interest in one of wine’s most classic accompaniments, cheese. Further, it was around this time that she realized that she could connect with people on the topic of food through writing. “I discovered that you could write about cheese in the way that others wrote about wine. It’s a really great niche, and you reach more people because it has less of a hurdle, so to say [than wine]. There are all kinds of quality levels so it leads you yet again to all kinds of different regions and people.”
Then, when faced with the decision to take over the wine shop where she was working or go full time as a freelance food writer and journalist, she took to the latter route. Since 2001, she’s been a full-time freelance food and wine writer for Slow Food Magazin, Saveur, and numerous other publications in both German and English.
She has since written three books on artisan cheeses, German food culture and most recently Beyond Bratwurst: A History of Food in Germany. For her, this book was about coming to terms with being German and what that entails in terms of the culmination of events and the intermingling of cultures that have contributed to the development of German culinary tradition. “Germany is this entity in the middle of Europe, whose shape has changed a lot over time. There were always people migrating through, and they all left a bit of their food habits. That’s actually what makes Germany.”
“With food you always have a point of departure. It’s always an entrance point. Food connects you to people, and I really feel that is the most important thing you can do in life.”
As much as her written work, however, Ursula notes how important her participation in events and symposiums have remained essential to communicating face-to-face the themes and messages around food and culture she finds most central to what she does. One such example of this is her engagement at the prestigious Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. She remarks that, “…in the academic world you have to focus on the theory and the academic bit. I started to become quite involved because you still have to focus on the practical side. How can you talk about food without sharing food? The practical side is just as important.”
Her interest in cheeses and the way it democratizes gastronomy also comes into play here. At the HeinzelCheeseTalks she gives in Berlin, “I discovered that through cheese, people are able to recognize each other beyond nationalities, beyond politics, beyond media stuff. For example, I bring in Turkish cheeses, as Anatolia is hugely fascinating for cheese because it leads you back to the roots of our civilization! I don’t say that much; I just give them one cheese after another and then I listen to their reactions, and we talk about where those cheeses come from. I feel that most of them, hopefully, go ah! Anatolian cheese is Turkey, and then they start to connect what they know about Turkey. Otherwise, you know what you hear in the news and all that and go, ah okay! They’re people like us.”
“Food has social, economic, [implications] – everything. It’s all of those layers that build up through the millennia that we carry with ourselves which make us.”
Every life is the culmination of gradual shifts and turns; combined with thousands or even millions of others, these layers form the cultural history of a given place. As such, each bite of food becomes something infinitesimal, shaped by the grand momentum of civilization, which can ultimately lead us back to ourselves as human beings – transcendent of culture, language, or nationality. Over the course of a long and successful career, Ursula’s most prominent message is perhaps that there is no better way to make sense of the meandering complexity of life, on scales both large and small, than through food.