By Alan Keyser.
Sauerkraut was one of the basic fermented foods prepared from a preserved vegetable.
James Mease found, “In Pennsylvania it is a very fashionable dish among the Germans, and when prepared with neatness, is highly palatable, especially when eaten with salt pork.” (Don Yoder, “The Domestic Encyclopaedia of James Mease, M.D. 1804,” Pennsylvania Folklife, Spring 1965, p25)
Since sauerkraut is ready to eat before butchering time in late November, they ate it with salt pork preserved the previous season, at least until they butchered and had fresh pork again.
This method for making sauerkraut emphasizes the importance of always keeping the wooden kraut tub clean and free of all contamination:
Have a strong cask: cut the cabbage fine and put a layer of it in the bottom of the cask; sprinkle on salt and pound it till moist or wet with the juice. Put on another layer of cabbage; salt and pound as before; and so on till all the cabbage be thus packed down. Lay a cloth over it, a board cover and a heavy weight on it. In about a week after a thick scum will rise. Take off the weight, board and cloth, and with a wet cloth wash off the cabbage or it will smell. After washing the cloth put it on again with the board cover and weight. When you take out any cabbage for use, take it off even, wash the cloth, and replace all as before.
–Mr. Homespun, The Plough Boy (Albany, NY: November 20, 1819), 194. This recipe was from southeastern Pennsylvania. Families had a large flat rounded stone, usually found in a local creek and carefully washed and saved as the weight for the Krautstenner.
Cabbage was converted to sauerkraut by this method published by Willich in Philadelphia in 1821. This recipe contains caraway:
The soundest and most solid cabbages are selected, cut very small, put into a barrel in layers, about a handful of salt and caraway seeds; in this manner the layers are closely rammed down, one upon the other till the barrel is full, when a loose cover is put over it and pressed down with a heavy weight. After standing for some time the mass begins to ferment; and as soon as it subsides the head is fitted into the barrel which is then finally closed, and its contents preserved for use. After being once opened, the kraut must be carefully compressed with a loose cover and fresh salt and water substituted every time.
–A. F. M. Willich, M.D., The Domestic Encyclopedia… (Philadelphia, Abraham Small, 1821) 3, 217.
Making sauerkraut was so universally understood that Willich does not say by what method you cut the cabbage “very small,” nor does he specify the forming of three to four inch layers. Two tools were needed to make sauerkraut by this method. The cabbage was “cut very small” on a Grauthowwel or cabbage plane. This cutter was a board with knives fastened over a slot in the middle with a box that held the cabbage head and slid back and forth over the knives. As Willich says the layers were “closely rammed down” with a wooden kraut stamper.
Victor Dieffenbach knew these details from his grandparents’ sauerkraut making:
My grandmother would trim the cabbage, removing the outside leaves and all the damaged unsuitable parts. Grandfather would then cut the heads through the middle, and with a triangular cut, take out the heart of the cabbage (grout dash). Then he threw the cabbage, one at a time, into the cutter box. My father was a big husky man, and he would operate the cutter by sliding the box back and forth over the sharp knife, at the same time pressing down with his fingers on the cabbage it contained. The cabbage fell into the tub. When a sufficient quantity was in the tub, it was removed to the “grout-shtenner.” This was a high wooden tub with sloping sides. My sister would then take the shredded cabbage mass out of the tub and put it in the “shtenner” and sprinkle some coarse salt over it: about four inches was all that was put in at one time, in a layer. And now came the fun of the entire job, tamping it down with the kraut-tamper (grout-shtemple). With this implement the cabbage was rammed and pounded until the salt and juice from the cabbage would squash up through and would cover the cabbage. More cabbage and more salt were added from time to time until the tub was full. There must be enough salt to form plenty of liquid, so it will cover the entire of the top of the mass.
–Victor C. Dieffenbach, “Cabbage in the Folk-Culture of My Pennsylvanian Dutch Elders,” The Pennsylvania Dutchman (April 15, 1952), 2.
After cutting and stomping the kraut tub had to stand for about three weeks until it had fermented and was done working. Then it was ready to cook. (The Globe-Times Cook Book of Old Fashioned Recipes, Bethlehem, PA: Globe Times, 1934, p22)
Early fall was sauerkraut season, but certain days were excluded because of old beliefs.
Making sauerkraut when the moon is in the sign of Pisces will cause it to be watery. (Russell W. Gilbert, “The Almanac in Pennsylvania German Homes,” ‘S Pennsylfawnisch Deitsch Eck, The Morning Call, Allentown, PA, January 15, 1944)
Another time to avoid making sauerkraut is the week in which St. Gall’s Day (October 16) falls. This week was known in the dialect as die Gallewoch and the day was Gallusdaag. Made then it was thought sauerkraut would become bitter. Here the folk mind emphasized bitter gall, rather than St. Gall, the sixth and seventh century Irish missionary to the continent whose day it was. (Don Yoder, “Sauerkraut in the Pennsylvania Folk-Culture,” Pennsylvania Folklife, Summer 1961, p68)
Sauerkraut was made in a tall cedar tub, known as a “Grautschtenner,” and the period English term for this was “krout stand.” Anna Mary Straub of Freeburg, Snyder County, “cooked in an open fireplace, and the sour krout stand was kept in the kitchen.” She kept her kraut tub in her kitchen so her sauerkraut would be handy. But most of all it was there, because the winter temperatures in her kitchen were low enough to preserve it, and she did not need to go down the cellar steps for sauerkraut. (Daniel S. Boyer, “Washington Township” in History of that part of the Susquehanna and Juniata Valleys embraced in the counties of Mifflin, Juniata, Perry, Union and Snyder, Philadelphia: Everts, Peck and Richard, 1886, 2, 1531)
This method of cooking sauerkraut was taken from an agricultural paper of 1819:
Before you boil Sour Krout, put it in clean water and squeeze it dry. Put one half of what is to be cooked into your kettle, then your pork, and then the other half of the krout. Put on sufficient water to cover it. Put it over a brisk fire at first. When you think the pork is done uncover it with a silver spoon and take it out: then continue to boil the cabbage till it is done; then put the pork in again and keep it so till it is hot. In taking out the cabbage use a brass skimmer, as any thing of iron will turn it black. It takes two hours and a half to boil it.
–Mr. Homespun, The Plough Boy (1819), 194. This letter was from a “Woman of Philadelphia.”
Pork, sauerkraut and mashed potatoes
When prepared for the table “the usual accompaniment to sauerkraut was mashed potatoes, while apple-butter was eaten with the bread in the belief that the acidity of the former helped to neutralize the grease of the cabbage and meat and prevented the liability to nausea from over-indulgence.” (Walter J. Hoffman, Journal of American Folkore, 1889, p23.) Something sour was usually served with fatty meat dishes in the hope that the acidity would “cut the grease” and aid digestion.
An outline of a menu including sauerkraut was recorded by Niemcewicz in Lancaster County. Speaking of food he said, “They live with the greatest economy, sour cabbage seasoned with salt pork, potatoes, a piece of smoked meat is the food of even the most well-to-do.” (Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, Under their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels through America in 1797-1798…, Elizabeth, NJ: New Jersey Historical Society at Newark, 1965, p122)
Lutheran pastor John Frederick Ernst reported that his parishioners in “Dryland” Northampton County, Pennsylvania in 1786 ate both sauerkraut and “Sieskraut.” (This was in response to a question from Henry Helmuth about what Ernst’s parishioners ate. Original questionnaire response in the Lutheran Archives, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA. Catalog #PE72/A1.)
The following comments mention the meat most often used with sauerkraut. “Sauergraut un Speck macht die alde Weiwer fett.” (Sauerkraut and bacon make old women fat.) And another says, “Sauergraut un Schpeck macht die gleena Buwe dick un fett.” (Sauerkraut and bacon make little boys stout and fat.)
—The Thomas R. Brendle Collection of Pennsylvania German Folklore, Vol. 1, C. Richard Beam, ed. (Schaefferstown, PA: Historic Schaefferstown, Inc., 1995), 74.
To the Pennsylvania Dutch, sauerkraut was a great delicacy, and the Muhlenberg family was no exception. While Pastor Muhlenberg and his family were visiting the Lutheran congregation in Charleston, South Carolina in 1774, one of his Philadelphia friends sent him a package with sauerkraut. Muhlenberg declared the sauerkraut like a “gift of a costly medicine. …The whole family derived great sensual gratification from it, and I cannot deny that I shared in it.” (H. M. Muhlenberg Journal 2: 591)
An anonymous letter from a woman who grew up in Dauphin County says:
[There] I… ate my first sauerkraut dinner – sauerkraut cooked as only the Pennsylvania Dutch know how. I’ve eaten it since on its native heath and cooked by metropolitan chefs, but never again will it taste so delicious as when prepared by the deft hands of Annie Shadel of Lykens Valley. To the Pennsylvania-Dutchman such a dinner always means sauerkraut, boiled with a good-sized piece of fresh pork, preferably, and served with mashed potatoes and Knep. Kraut and meat are boiled together until the meat is tender, then it is removed from the kettle and the dumplings are popped in and boiled briskly with the kraut. Browned butter is poured over the Knep on the hot platter.
–“Extract from a Pennsylvania woman’s letter in the New York Evening Post”  reprinted in The Pennsylvania German (July 1907), 332-333.
This old proverb tells how some thought of leftover sauerkraut. “Sauergraut is erscht gut, wann’s siwwet Mol uff gewarmt is.” (Sauerkraut fir becomes good after it has been warmed up for the seventh time.)
—Brendle Collection (1995), p77.
To add interest to leftover sauerkraut they dropped dumplings into the pot once it was boiling and boiled them for another fifteen minutes. (Globe-Times Cook Book, 10, 22) At times, sauerkraut and dumplings was a complete meatless meal, and many looked forward to it.
Yet another combination of meat and sauerkraut is mentioned in this poem about the life of the Blacksmith. Verse five in the Schmidt Lied [Blacksmith Song] says:
Pinkepank! Der Schmidt is krank
Bey Sauerkraut und Schinken.
Essen stärkt zwar Mut und Bluth;
Aber Käte! Sey so gut,
Hol’ auch was zu trinken!
Pinkepank! The smith is sick.
Eating sauerkraut and ham
Bolsters nerve and blood.
But Katie, be so good,
And bring some liquid dram!
—Der Neue, Gemeinnützige Landwirtschafts Calender auf das Jahr [almanac for the year] 1788, (Lancaster, PA: Stiemer, Albrecht and Lahn )
Goschenhoppen historian Alan Keyser has researched and written extensively on Pennsylvania German folk life topics, with special concentration on food and textiles.