My glorious Citizens! To those in the United States, today is of course Thanksgiving, a day and meal alike that are both synonymous and sympatico with the glorious feast that define the day: Turkey, stuffing, trimmings, sauerkraut…
Wait, WHAT? Sauerkraut?!
If you are from Baltimore, you know whereof I speak – citizens of Charm City have been enjoying homemade sauerkraut as part of their traditional Thanksgiving for more than 150 years now. How could such a seemingly odd food custom come to be? Sit back and allow the omniscient omnipotence, the Gastronomic God who ALONE is TFD to beam knowledge directly to your cerebral cortex!
As noted in a thoroughly-researched (and excerpted by me) series of articles from – unsurprisingly – the Baltimore Sun:
Chris Franzoni of Federal Hill grew up eating fermented cabbage two ways around the holidays: stewed with Ostrowski’s sausage, the way his German grandma made it, or fried with brown sugar and butter, the way his Polish side of the family did.
For Franzoni, like many Baltimoreans of German and Eastern European descent, sauerkraut is a must-have addition to the Thanksgiving table, a custom as old as the celebration itself, dating back to when President Abraham Lincoln declared it a national holiday.
Until the end of the U.S. Civil War, historians say krauthobblers, or “cabbage-shavers,” went door to door in American cities, slicing cabbage for home cooks preparing sauerkraut.
The tradition of sauerkraut at Thanksgiving in Baltimore appears to come from the many Germans and Eastern Europeans who lived in the city when it was declared a national holiday. Simple and cheap to make, the dish at times has seemed to embody the city’s own working class ethos.
As early as 1907, an unnamed Baltimore Sun reporter waxed poetic about the kraut-and-turkey blend.
“Of all the multitude of duties that confront a public journal,” he wrote, “none is more genuinely pleasant than that of noting, each autumn, the reappearance of sauerkraut upon the tables of the great plain people. … It is the first course in that gastronomic saturnalia which reaches a climax or culmination in roast turkey.”
Delectable or distasteful, sauerkraut and turkey have been a local tradition for at least 150 years. Sauerkraut itself, in one form or another, has been a staple of the human diet for much longer.
The ancient Egyptians are said to have built altars in honor of the salutary powers of cabbage. About 200 B.C., the Roman statesmen Cato wrote of preserving cabbages and carrots with salt.
Genghis Khan is said to have brought fermented cabbage from China to what is now Central Europe about 1,200 years after that, and Tatars separately imported it to the area from the Volga River region two centuries after that.
Since then, Germanic people and those from certain regions of eastern France, notably Alsace, have made sauerkraut (German for “sour cabbage;” in French, it’s called choucroute) a central part of the regional diet, complete with its low cost and its high vitamin C content. Its sour flavors also seem to complement the taste of sausage and take the edge off the gamy flavors of duck and goose.
But how did sauerkraut, with its heady international history, end up dolloped on the same plate as turkey, that richly bland mainstay of the traditional Thanksgiving meal in North America? And why in Baltimore?
The answer, historians tell us, lies in demographics.
Baltimore was a leading gateway for German immigration during the 1800s, so much so that by 1863, the year President Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday, one in four of the city’s residents were transplanted Germans and spoke the tongue as their first language.
Most who ponder the subject say those immigrants were equally caught up in the traditions of their new country and interested in sprinkling them with the customs they brought with them.
One historian cites a Pennsylvania Dutch tradition that derives from the Eastern European custom of stuffing goose with fermented cabbage. William Woys Weaver, author of “Sauerkraut Yankees,” a book of Pennsylvania recipes and food lore, says traders from the York and Chambersburg areas brought it to Baltimore, a frequent stop.
“That tradition was written about as early as 1840,” he says.
Local lore has a slightly different twist.
“My wife and I think the immigrants from Germany and Poland settled in Highlandtown and the area around Broadway generations ago, and they celebrated Thanksgiving the way we did, but they also wanted to add a touch of home to their meals,” said Nickolas Antonas, who with his wife, Mary, owned and ran the Eastern House restaurant for 44 years.
The pair always served a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, but they didn’t think to include sauerkraut when they first opened in 1966, said Nickolas, who is of Greek ancestry.
Now that you are aware of the unique bonds between Baltimore and the European joy of Sauerkraut, let me explain how I have adapted this treat to its city’s history!
Baltimore is also the home of the acclaimed McCormick spice company, so I have endeavored to blend the Germanic heritage, the spices of the McCormick franchise and the Pennsylvania Dutch influences into a single coherent recipe. Immodestly, I think I have wildly succeeded beyond even my most fevered expectations!
First off, to add a distinct taste and aroma as well as the correct probiotic bacteria needed for the ferment, I use a unique ingredient – Farmhouse Culture Bev Gut Shot Garlic Dill Pickle Brine, which you can buy here. I also reinforce the garlic flavor substantially with the addition of several grated fresh cloves of proper garlic! I further amp up the spicy with the addition of some freshly-grated horseradish!
Of course, my kraut includes Germanic spices that are a must in sauerkraut from the region, including juniper berries and caraway seeds. German sauerkraut also typically includes some thinly-sliced apple to add some sweetness, mine is no exception. It’s important when you make sauerkraut to have the proper proportion of salt to cabbage – it should be 2%, too much more and fermentation won’t happen, too little and the wrong bacteria will grow and cause it to rot.
As to the correct cabbage for use in sauerkraut, I personally prefer a type known as Kaitlin f1, which was bred specifically for making sauerkraut in its most perfected form – you can buy seeds here. You will need a proper fermentation kit, which includes all the proper equipment to make sauerkraut, including a wide mouth mason jar, proper tops to allow the fermentation gases to escape, weights, etc. You can buy my preferred kit here very inexpensively.
Lastly, to loop in the Pennsylvania Dutch influences, I include some herb- and spice-infused cider vinegar which is renowned in the region for its health benefits. Plus, it’s delicious – you can buy my preferred brand here.
Citizens, this is a delicious kraut, quite probably the best you’ll ever taste, dusted as it is with the magic TFD fairy dust of supreme deliciousness! Whether you enjoy this at Thanksgiving as those in Baltimore do, or just on a killer Reuben sandwich, this is absolutely the real-deal!
Battle on – the Generalissimo