The sauerkraut memoirs
Before we climbed into the sauerkraut, we always scrubbed our feet, but it was no help. We had spent the entire summer barefoot, and by autumn our feet were shod with hazelnut-brown callouses tough enough to handle sprints through wheat stubble. No brush or soap on earth had the power to wash them clean.
But why bother? A tub of sauerkraut can handle a few shreds of skin and crumbs of soil. What it can’t handle is air. Leave recesses among the cabbage, and fungi will take hold. Grated since early morning, the cabbage was heaped layer by layer into an oaken cask, each stratum treated to a handful of salt and the trompling of little feet. The children drove out the last drop of juice, the last bubble of air. Cabbage fiber mush gave way beneath our feet and oozed and squirted between our toes until the uppermost layer reached the top of the barrel. At last the raw kraut was covered with a linen cloth, over it a wooden lid weighted down with a head-sized rock that soon stood in a puddle of cabbage juice and saltwater.
Hermetically sealed, the kraut fermented for six weeks in our cellar. Oh, the joys of rural life! Sauerkraut was not the only highlight. The cottage stood on the edge of a beech woodland that stretched to the banks of the Recknitz, the river that divides Mecklenburg from Vorpommern. An idyllic peace seemed to reign in this sparsely populated region, even though there was a war on. The Eastern Front came closer every day. But the bombs were falling on Berlin, Hamburg, Rostock, Stettin. Without the government-issue, single-channel radio receiver, we never would have known. The hunger and desperation that ruled the cities were foreign to us. Next to our sauerkraut stood an entire barrel of beet syrup, and our attic smokehouse held looping strands of sausage and entire hams. A clay pot in the kitchen was filled with honey from our own bees. A creampot stood under the milk centrifuge. Our chickens laid a dozen eggs a day, and once a week the entire house smelled deliciously of fresh-baked bread.
Among all the delicious bounty from barn and field, sauerkraut was the most favored delicacy in our cuisine, above all for the forester, a proud, angry old man whose head was smooth as a mirror. His forbidding mien softened only when he was able to pile a serving of sauerkraut on his plate. With the sole exception of desserts, he slapped a spoonful of sauerkraut on virtually every dish – uncooked sauerkraut straight from the barrel, his condiment of choice. We all copied him, taking it in stride that kraut au naturel was so sour it burned holes in the roof of our mouths. Exotic additions such as wine, bay leaves or juniper berries were regarded as uncouth and foreign, and were nearly unknown. Northern German home cooking in general and Pomeranian home cooking in particular were required to fulfill precisely three conditions: Whatever landed on the forester’s plate had to be large, hot, and cooked to a pulp.
With a few exceptions, that triumvirate reigned throughout the lowlands of northern Germany. The reader will suspects rightfully that cooking standards rise as one moves in Germany from north to south. While the indigenous people of the north ate “potatoes, woody fruits, cabbage, rutabaga, and pinto beans,” the south gave rise to more sophisticated versions of sauerkraut, particularly in sunny regions where the cultivation of wine encouraged the development of an interest in nuances of taste. The forester might have tolerated such humble additions as onions and apples, but a casserole with layers of sauerkraut, liverwurst and mashed potatoes – as is still served today around Heilbronn with a side of dumplings – would have been transferred unceremoniously from his plate to the floor. The same fate would have awaited the Alsatian specialty choucroute de poisson, which garnishes sauerkraut with fish and soaks it in Riesling, not to mention the Hessian habit of adding apple juice.
Despite all the possible variations, the conviction is widespread that sauerkraut – next to the ur-Teutonic bratwurst and the no less German ham hocks – is the most German food conceivable from the Alps to the Baltic. Nationalist poets and thinkers of varying origins have acclaimed it as the German national dish, among them the Swabian balladeer Ludwig Uhland who forged the patriotic rhyme (or at least it rhymes in German): “Our noble sauerkraut / We should not omit to mention it / A German invented it / And thus it is a German food.” Somewhat to the left of Uhland we find Heinrich Heine, who managed to work ancient forebears into his hymn of praise: “The table was set / Here I found old-fashioned German cooking / Hail to thee, sauerkraut / Blessed be thy odors.” Even for a critical revolutionary mind like that of Ludwig Börne, it was clear that Germans had given birth to sauerkraut and that they “love and care for it with every tenderness.” Like the words kindergarten and rucksack, sauerkraut entered the English language unchanged, and was of course the origin of the less than affectionate term “krauts” used to denote Hitler’s legions.
Nonetheless, Americans became major consumers of sauerkraut after German immigrants brought it to the New World 300 years ago. Hot dogs with sauerkraut are still popular. Germans everywhere take sauerkraut against homesickness. Even at the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, Princess Liselotte von der Pfalz demanded regular care packages of “mett- and knackwurst, smoked goose, and sauerkraut.”
However, it has long been known that the ancient Greeks and Romans ate fermented cabbage. The Chinese, too; it is a piquant commentary on the Germanness of sauerkraut that it was in fact invading Mongol hordes who brought “suan cai” to Europe. Jews were quick to adopt the kosher treat, providing it a secure homeland in eastern Europe. Colonialism spread sauerkraut around the world after the 18th-century British physician James Lind discovered that its high vitamin C content prevented scurvy. The scourge begins with bleeding gums and ends with muscle atrophy and had been the most frequent cause of death among seamen, who often ate nothing but salted meat and zwieback on voyages that lasted for months. Sauerkraut barrels in the galleys put a stop to catastrophes like the one that struck the ships of Vasco de Gama, whose voyage of exploration cost two-thirds of his crew of 160 their lives.
It was not only sailors who profited from the beneficial effects of sauerkraut. Preserving vegetables by fermentation has long been an element in the survival strategy of households forced to survive harsh winters. In an age of freezers and air cargo it is no longer an issue. We buy everything we need – and many things we don’t need – with no regard for the time of year. Nonetheless, or perhaps for that very reason, a “locavore” trend is underway in German kitchens, an urge to eat foods that the respective region and season can provide. What could be more local than good old sauerkraut, which is nowhere more highly prized and grows nowhere better than on German soil!
The question remains: Which soil? Cabbage is a demanding crop and thrives only on the very best soil. One of its strongholds is the loess soil of the “Fildern,” a small plateau near Stuttgart, famous for its bluish “Filderkraut.” The unique variety of cabbage produces a conical head with thin leaves whose flavor is more subtle and refined than that of other white cabbages. But don’t say that aloud in Dithmarsch. Its people will immediately rise up to defend the fertile marshy soil behind their levees where every year 80 million cabbage heads roll, more than in any other region of Europe. Their cabbage owes its exceptional roundness and hearty flavor, they say, to the influence of an eternally damp North Sea breeze and the long summer days of the far north.
It is ultimately a matter of taste whose cabbage is king of the hill. Often enough, the ideal exists entirely independent of rationality in memories alone – of a certain smell, a sound, a gesture, or the look of bliss on the face of an old forester eating sauerkraut pressed to perfection by the feet of children.