A FAMILY AFFAIR
From Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria the Habsburg dynasty ruled a vast swath of Europe from 1452 to 1918. In a famous culinary quarrel, two branches of the Habsburg family, one in Austria and the other in Italy, claim credit for the invention of what would become the Austrian national dish.
Northern Italy which, in the 19th century, was part of the Austrian Empire, offers costoletta alla Milanese, a rib veal chop (or cutlet on the bone) pounded thin, dipped in egg and bread crumbs, fried gently in butter and served with lemon wedges. Tenderizing tough meat by pounding it is a technique practiced in ancient Rome and possibly transported by the army to remote outposts, including what is now northern Italy.
The dish crossed the Alps in 1857 with Austrian Field General Joseph Radetzky, who brought the recipe back to Austria from Italian territories under Habsburg rule, adding a note in his report to Emperor Franz Joseph I about a “deliciously breaded veal cutlet.” Weiner schnitzel, literally schnitzel “in the style of Vienna,” is a boneless veal cutlet taken from the leg, pounded, breaded and fried in lard. It has become the Austrian national dish.
While large square tomes like the Oxford Companion to Food find the Milanese argument, that Italy initiated the dish, persuasive, Austrian writers dismiss it by pointing out that recipes for similar dishes appear in Austrian cookbooks a century older than Radetzky’s report. Notwithstanding origin myths, the term is now protected by Austrian law; to merit the title, a Weiner schnitzel must be made with veal, not pork or chicken. Ingredients and preparation also are legally defined; it must consist of a slice of veal coated in egg, flour, breadcrumbs and a pinch of salt then fried. I’m unaware of any legal requirement that a Weiner schnitzel be larger than the dinner plate it’s served on, but that is clearly a popular expectation. September 9 is now National Weiner Schnitzel Day in Austria, but schnitzelfests are organized there, and elsewhere in the world, year round.