Immigrant’s Table extra: Kraut Rocks vs krautrock


Sauerkraut, in all sorts of dishes, has survived and thrived for centuries without a celebrity chef endorsement. (Julia Ewan for The Washington Post)

What I don’t think of is sauerkraut.

But chef Spike Mendelsohn, who’s apparently willing to align himself with almost anything, including acid reflux, has just signed onto the “Kraut Rocks” campaign to promote this particular kind of fermented cabbage, long a staple of German cuisine. Personally, I love sauerkraut soaked in Riesling, but the celebrity chef endorsement reminds me how far the dish has come since German immigrants began moving in earnest to America in the 19th century.

In her book, “97 Orchard” (Harper, 2010), about five immigrant families who lived in one New York City tenement, Jane Ziegelman describes the painstaking (and pungent) process that Germans went through each year to prepare sauerkraut in their crowded, poorly ventilated apartment buildings.

Ziegelman writes:

Between late October and early December, tenement housewives (and saloon keepers as well) turned their energies to sauerkraut-making, producing enough in those few weeks to last through most of the year. In a pre-Cuisinart world, the chopping of that much cabbage was a daunting project, so women enlisted the help of an itinerant tradesman known as a krauthobler or “cabbage-shaver.” With a tool designed specifically for the task — it worked like a French mandolin [sic], the blades set into a wooden board — the krauthobler went door to door, literally shaving cabbages into thread-like strands. The cost was a penny a head.

Once the cabbage was shaved, the housewife took over. She scoured an empty liquor or vinegar barrel and lined it with whole cabbage leaves. Next came the shredded cabbage, which she salted and pounded, layer by layer, until the barrel was nearly full. Now she covered the cabbage with a cloth, then a piece of wood cut to the size of the opening, weighing it down with a stone. Left on its own, the salted cabbage began to weep, creating its own pickling brine. Once a week, the housewife tended to her barrel, rinsing the cloth to prevent contamination and skimming the brine.

Fortunately, making your own sauerkraut is nowhere near as difficult these days. And once you’ve made (or bought) your own, you can use it in these two delicious recipes from our Recipe Finder archives:

* Gertie’s Sauerkraut and Apples (See the image above.)

* Chocolate-Sauerkraut Cake

Perhaps you have a favorite sauerkraut recipe of your own? If so, please share it with us.

Tim Carman serves as the full-time writer for the Post's Food section and as the $20 Diner for the Weekend section, a double duty that requires he ingest more calories than a draft horse.
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